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The right misjudges America


AMONG conservatives it is an article of faith that Congress has to oust President Clinton to awaken a country badly in need of moral renewal. That argument has only two problems. One is that all evidence suggests that a moral renewal is already under way in America. The second is that the public response to the Monica Lewinsky scandal -- condemnation of his behavior bounded by opposition to his removal -- embodies the new social consensus that's making this renewal possible.

During the House impeachment debate earlier this month, the principal Republican argument was that removing Mr. Clinton was essential to uphold "the rule of law." But the underground spring feeding much of the fervor in this fight is the conservative belief that America is locked in a 30-year "culture war."

To the right, Mr. Clinton embodies everything that went wrong with America in the 1960s. Forcing him out is meant not only to hold him personally accountable for his duplicity, but to roll back the "moral relativism" advanced by the baby boom generation and re-establish bright lines of right and wrong.

These themes suffuse conservative writing and thinking about the scandal. In September, when independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr released his report on Mr. Clinton's affair with Ms. Lewinsky, the Wall Street Journal editorialized that Mr. Starr was "not just prosecuting Bill Clinton; he was prosecuting the entire culture that gave birth to what Bill Clinton represents."

The Rev. Richard John Neuhaus, editor of the influential conservative magazine First Things, says that removing Mr. Clinton "would be an enormous emetic" (it is a word; you can look it up) and "would purge us" as a society.

House Majority Whip Tom DeLay, a Texas Republican, brought this subtext to the surface when he declared that the struggle over impeachment was "a debate about relativism v. absolute truth."

Cool response

These arguments not only help explain why conservatives have been so passionate about removing Mr. Clinton. They also help explain why the rest of the country has been so cool -- if not hostile -- to that cause.

The right's problem is that while it sees the struggle against Mr. Clinton as a critical moment in a long culture war, most Americans consider that war long settled. Conservative thinkers such as failed Supreme Court nominee Robert H. Bork may worry that Mr. Clinton symbolizes a society that has lost the capacity to distinguish right from wrong, but virtually every major social indicator now shows Americans turning back toward more traditional views about family, self-restraint and personal responsibility.

In its latest issue, the conservative American Enterprise magazine offers more than two dozen indicators charting what looks much like a cultural U-turn. Not all trends, of course, are positive (teen drug use, for one). But the overall direction is unmistakable. Among teens, suicide, sex and pregnancy are down (pregnancy to its lowest level in 20 years) and church attendance is up. For society overall, the rates of abortion and out-of-wedlock births are dropping, crime and welfare dependency are plummeting, the divorce rate has been edging down since 1980 and charitable giving is up.

Yet even amid this return to more traditional moral patterns, there's no sign that the country is simply trying to recapture the past; it's not as if everyone is trying to move into "Pleasantville." Instead, the evidence suggests that families today seem to be melding the GI generation's respect for rules with the baby boomers' reverence for individual choice in a classically American pattern of amalgamation and fusion.

The result is a pragmatic moral synthesis that accepts the need for transcendent standards of right and wrong yet tempers that conviction with a '60s notion of tolerance for those who fail to meet those standards. As sociologist Alan Wolfe wrote in his recent book, "One Nation, After All" -- an insightful examination of middle-class morality -- Americans now "believe in the importance of leading a virtuous life but are reluctant to impose values they understand as virtuous for themselves on others."

In a society in which questioning authority has itself become something of a traditional value, what makes this morality work is its willingness to make distinctions. As Mr. Wolfe writes, many Americans now recoil from "morality writ large": oracular, inflexible pronouncements from any institution (especially government). What they want is "morality writ small": A code of conduct that establishes clear expectations but also acknowledges the messy choices of daily life.

Nothing demonstrates that preference more clearly than the public reaction to the Lewinsky scandal. In poll after poll, the country has unequivocally denounced Mr. Clinton's behavior. Yet, most Americans have rejected the conclusion that Mr. Clinton's offenses are sufficient to justify his removal -- or even to erase the positive attributes (empathy, tenacity, vision) that they continue to see in him.

In many ways, the argument over Mr. Clinton comes down to competing planes of vision: morality writ large vs. morality writ small. Conservatives want to focus on the underlying principle: He lied, and that's wrong. Most Americans, while accepting the principle, continue to temper it by looking at the particulars: He lied about sex, not about a fundamental decision of state.

Sending a message

RTC In the end, this extended morality play may send out a different cultural message from the one the right hopes for. Mr. Clinton's critics want to show that a society cannot function without sharp lines of right and wrong -- and a willingness to punish those who cross them. But with this struggle unearthing the adulteries of so many other political leaders, the country may take an opposite message: Tolerance of human imperfection is as essential to a society's functioning as respect for absolute standards.

That is actually a moral calculus more sophisticated and nuanced than most of the Washington elite has applied to the Clinton scandal.

The capital is now obsessed with finding every politician's maximum point of vulnerability and then bludgeoning him or her with it. But the public is insisting on judging its political leaders not only by what they've done at the lowest moments of their lives, but also by what they can be at their best. That's not a sign of moral collapse; it's the mark of a society building a moral code demanding enough and forgiving enough to unify the most diverse nation on the planet.

C7 Ronald Brownstein is a Los Angeles Times columnist.

Pub Date: 12/30/98

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