WASHINGTON -- A longtime Democratic activist in North Carolina was trying to explain the other day why so many voters seemed to have soured on President Clinton. "I think it's because we had such high hopes two years ago," he said. "We thought everything was going to be different, but it's turned out to be just politics as usual."
A party worker in New York had a different view. "Everybody knew it would be tough to get things done," she said. "But Clinton has been all over the lot, and nobody knows what he stands for."
Here in Washington, a Democratic political consultant offered a third theory -- that Clinton has not been personally imposing enough as a national leader. "We've thrown away the presidency itself," he said. "He's lost the grandeur of the office."
But a competitor who has worked for the White House argued that it is simpler than that. "I wouldn't say this publicly, but it's the 'slick Willie' business," he said. "People don't believe him anymore."
All of these theories are, of course, products of the latest cottage industry to spring up in American politics today -- trying to figure out how Bill Clinton could get into so much political trouble in such a relatively short time.
Depending on whom you ask, Clinton is in disfavor with the voters because he has turned out to be either too liberal or too conservative. He has either tried to do too many things or failed to tackle the problems that really need attention. He is either refusing to accept advice or taking it from the wrong people. He either should be a "new Democrat" or he should go back to the party's New Deal roots.
Some of the apparent conflicts aren't really conflicts at all. Some critics say, for example, that Clinton's greatest failure has been in communicating his successes, while others argue that he talks too much. In fact, talking too much often causes failures to communicate.
To some extent, Clinton's high negative ratings in opinion polls are a product of the drumbeat of Republican criticism. This is particularly the case with the tax issue on which the Republican line has consistently been that the 1993 budget agreement-deficit reduction plan called for "the biggest tax increase" in history, a claim that may be accurate in terms of current dollars but ignores the fact that most of the higher revenues are being extracted from the wealthiest taxpayers.
But Clinton -- and, more to the point right now, Democrats identified with him -- also are being as sailed on issues on which Democratic opposition has been critical. One obvious example: His abortive attempt to change the rules against homosexuals in the military, where the leading figure on the other side was Sen. Sam Nunn of Georgia. The gays-in-the-military issue has
particular sting in the South.
Clinton and many of his advisers in the White House believe that he has been victimized by the failures of the mainstream media to give proper recognition to his accomplishments while what might be called the alternative media -- radio talk shows, for instance -- have been hammering him unceasingly. That may be a valid complaint, but it is also true that Clinton's positive achievements often have been lost in controversy over his backing and filling on other issues.
In terms of the Democratic outlook in the midterm elections now just eight weeks away, the reasons for Clinton's political problems are essentially irrelevant. The operative question is whether Democratic candidates can find a way to deal with that reaction against the White House in a way that saves their own skins.
No one who understands how American politics works believes that Clinton's unpopularity is enough by itself to sink an otherwise viable Democratic candidate. Midterm elections are never laboratory experiments in which all the variables -- local issues, the personality of the candidates -- can be controlled. But what the political professionals do understand is that the negative attitude toward the president can make enough of a difference at the margins to be decisive in, let's say, a campaign where candidates are separated by only one or two percentage points.
The problem for the Democrats is that there appear to be too many such campaigns for both the Senate and the House this year. And that is reason enough for a cottage industry based on trying to find why Bill Clinton is such heavy baggage.