On CNN's Lou Dobbs Tonight, senior political analyst Bill Schneider falsely equated President Bush's current widespread unpopularity -- and that of President Reagan during the Iran-Contra scandal -- with President Clinton's standing with the public during the Monica Lewinsky matter. Noting that, despite his poor overall poll numbers, Bush still enjoys support from Republicans, Schneider said, “Sooner or later, every leader gets in trouble. President Reagan had Iran-Contra. President Clinton had Monica Lewinsky. Like Bush, they had a base that helped them get through it.” But Schneider's suggestion that all three presidents had to rely on the support of their base during times of general public unhappiness with their performance is mistaken: While Reagan did see his approval ratings plummet to the low 40s during the Iran-Contra matter, Clinton saw no similar erosion of public support during the Lewinsky matter.
Unlike Schneider, the public apparently saw little similarity between, on the one hand Reagan, whose administration illegally sold arms to Iran in hopes of appeasing terrorists, and Bush, whose administration took the nation into a war based on false pretenses and badly bungled preparation for, and response to, Hurricane Katrina, and, on the other, Clinton, who had an inappropriate personal relationship.
Clinton's approval ratings were very high all through 1998 as the Lewinsky matter played out -- typically in the 60s, occasionally (such as when the Republican-controlled House of Representatives impeached him) breaking 70 percent. As an Associated Press summary of polls conducted in 1998 by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press and by CNN/USA Today/Gallup shows, Clinton's approval ratings were high when news of the Lewinsky matter surfaced, and remained high when former White House volunteer Kathleen Willey made further widely publicized allegations against him; when he admitted a relationship with Lewinsky; when Independent Counsel Kenneth Starr released his report; and when House Republicans voted to impeach him.
As Schneider himself reported on the December 30, 1998, edition of CNN's Inside Politics:
SCHNEIDER: President Clinton's job ratings have been in the 60s for most of the year -- the highest ratings for any president on record in his sixth year. Clinton's ratings spiked three times this year: after the State of the Union speech in January and again in August just after his speech in which he confessed his, “misleading the American public for the past seven months.” The president got his biggest bounce of all, a phenomenal 73 percent, after he got impeached in December. A few more setbacks like that and he'll go into the stratosphere.
By contrast, Reagan's approval ratings plummeted during the Iran-Contra scandal. In early December 1986 -- shortly after revelations that the Reagan administration sold arms to Iran and used the profits to support Contra rebels in Nicaragua were made public -- a New York Times poll showed Reagan's approval down 21 percentage points in just a month, to 46 percent. By late February 1987, his approval was only 42 percent -- George W. Bush's current territory, and 20 or more points lower than Clinton's was during most of 1998.
From the September 15 edition of Lou Dobbs Tonight:
SCHNEIDER: President Bush has one thing going for him as he tries to regain the initiative: He has kept his base. Every leader needs a base. Your base are the people who are with you when you're wrong. This president's base is not abandoning him. Eighty-five percent of Republicans stand behind President Bush. His allies defend him.
Sooner or later, every leader gets in trouble. President Reagan had Iran-Contra. President Clinton had Monica Lewinsky. Like Bush, they had a base that helped them get through it.