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Most of us can judge and forgive

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 Clinton 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, the principal Republican argument was that removing 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, Clinton embodies everything that went wrong with America in the 1960s. Forcing him out is meant not only to hold him accountable for his duplicity, it's also meant 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 Starr released his report on Clinton's affair with Monica Lewinsky, the Wall Street Journal editorialized that Starr was "not just prosecuting Bill Clinton; he was prosecuting the entire culture that gave birth to what Bill Clinton represents." The Rev. John Neuhaus, editor of the influential conservative magazine First Things, says that removing Clinton "would be an enormous emetic" and "would purge us" as a society. House Majority Whip Tom DeLay, R-Texas, brought this subtext to the surface when he declared that the struggle over impeachment was "a debate about relativism vs. absolute truth."

These arguments not only help explain why conservatives have been so passionate about removing 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 Clinton as a critical moment in a long culture war, most Americans consider that war long settled. Conservative thinkers such as Robert H. Bork may worry that 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, 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. 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 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 Clinton scandal. In poll after poll, the country has denounced Clinton's behavior. Yet, most Americans have rejected the conclusion that Clinton's offenses are sufficient to justify his removal _ or even to erase the positive attributes (empathy, tenacity, vision) that they see in him.

In many ways, the argument over 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.

In the end, this extended morality play may send out a different cultural message from the one the right hopes for. 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 political leaders, the country may take an opposite message: that tolerance of 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.

Ronald Brownstein writes for the Los Angeles Times.

Los Angeles Times