Political Aptitude Test

June 27, 1996


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Finally, The Answer

How Can You Tell When A Presidential Scandal Is Serious?

By Bill Schneider/CNN

WASHINGTON (June 27) -- The White House is besieged by allegations of scandal -- Whitewater,Paula Jones, Travelgate, the FBI files, Seance-gate. But President Clinton maintains a serene stability in the polls -- highest job approval rating all year, 19 points ahead of Bob Dole.

This week's question: how can you tell when a presidential scandal is serious?

The president's poll numbers drop.
The press goes after him.
The opposition calls for his impeachment.
His own party members turn on him.
Or -- the white house says "mistakes were made."

And the answer is ... D.

Members of his own party turn on him.

The press goes after the president all the time. Nothing new in that. Nor does it take a lot for members of the opposition to start talking about impeachment.

The first line of defense for any administration in trouble: Mistakes have been made, as chief of staff Leon Panetta acknowledged last weekend. That's the washington version of an apology -- somebody, somewhere made a mistake.

It takes a long time for a president's poll numbers to drop, about a year in the case of Watergate, when former President Richard Nixon's approval fell from 48 percent in April, 1973 to 24 percent in August, 1974. Most people gave Nixon the benefit of the doubt until the evidence against him was clear and irrefutable -- on tape.

It's when members of his own party start turning against him that a president knows he's in real trouble. Like when Republican Howard Baker asked his famous question of Nixon in 1973: "What did the president know and when did he know it."

Democrats understand that their survival is closely linked to the president's. They will defend him through thick and thin....until what? Until it becomes clear that the president may be endangering them. They're all in business for themselves. And if the president starts to look like a loser, that's bad for business.

This story originally appeared on CNN's "Inside Politics Extra."

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