Now I know how Republicans felt in 1998. Back then, the pursuers of Bill Clinton could simply not believe that the public was not rising up in rebellion against a president who had received Oval Office blow jobs from an employee and then lied about it. But the economy was zipping along, and the polls showed that a large majority of Americans approved of the Clinton’s (official) performance in the White House. Many conservative and GOP partisans were stunned by this outrage gap, with some even wondering what this said about the morals of the citizenry. Were people willing to ignore degenerate behavior and deceit for the sake of their 401(k)s?

But for those social-con worrywarts, the world righted itself in the 2000 election. Clearly, Bush, with his it’s-time-to-restore-honor-and-integrity-to-the-White-House schtick, won the backing of many voters who remained displeased–if not disgusted–by the Monica mess. Clinton did end up paying for his misbehavior. Well, actually, Al Gore did. But for conservatives, that was close enough.

Today the outrage gap is on the other foot. Bush has been misleading the public about critical elements of his presidency, and yet there has been no outcry. Sure, New York Times columnist Paul Krugman has been screaming about Bush’s lies, as have a few other liberal pundits ( moi, included). The Democrats have taken a stab at branding him a deceiver. For awhile, they pushed the mantra, he says one thing, and does another. But that never took off. Bush’s approval ratings remain in the mid-60s, not astronomically high, but higher than he deserves.

He has gotten away with much. He sold his original tax cuts package with several whopping lies. He asserted it would effectively stimulate the economy. Yet the White House noted that in the first year it would create 400,000 jobs–and cost about $200 billion. That’s $500,000 a job. (Why not just hand out money?) My favorite lie was Bush’s claim that 92 million Americans on average would receive $1100 due to his tax cuts. This was a phony number. Most middle-income earners could expect to get a couple hundred dollars from Bush’s tax cuts. The average was only higher because wealthy taxpayers would be pocketing large amounts of so-called “tax relief.” It was as if Bush had said that if nine unemployed people and one person earning $1,000,000 a year live on the same street, the average household income for the block is $100,000. That “average” would be of little use to the nine individuals out of work.

More recently, after Congress crafted a thoroughly dishonest tax bill–which only fits the budget because of blatant gimmicks–Bush gave it his blessing. What the Republicans pieced together is the most deceptive measure Washington has produced in years. It masquerades as a $350 billion, ten-year tax cut. But many of its central provisions expire within a few years, not ten. Since no one expects a future Congress and president to let these tax cuts expire, the real cost of the bill–which, to start with, is severely tilted toward the wealthy–will top $800 billion and possibly reach $1 trillion. In an era of deficits, tax cuts of that size will place enormous pressure on the federal budget and force either massive borrowing or widespread cuts in programs that tend to help low- and middle-income Americans. (Remember, Bush, when campaigning for president, promised he would not use deficits to fund his tax cuts, and he made the same pledge in 2001 when pushing his first round of supersized, wealthy-favoring tax cuts.)

When Bush signed this fraudulent measure, he declared, “We are helping workers who need more take-home pay.” Press secretary Ari Fleischer said, “This certainly does deliver tax relief to people who pay income taxes.” Only afterward did the public learn that the package’s expanded child credits did not cover millions of low-income taxpayers and that 8 million low- and middle-income taxpayers will receive no tax cut at all under the new law. This tax bill has been one big con.

Can the same be said about the MIA WMDs in Iraq? In his March 17 get-out-of-Dodge speech, Bush declared, “Intelligence gathered by this and other governments leaves no doubt that the Iraqi regime continues to possess and conceal some of the most lethal weapons ever devised.” No doubt? The administration pushed this no-doubt line for months. Bush, Fleischer, Rumsfeld, Cheney, Powell, Wolfowitz–they all said it. The main reason for war was that Saddam Hussein possessed actual, ready-to-go weapons of mass destruction that at any moment could be handed over to anti-American terrorists like al Qaeda. The Bush argument was not that Saddam Hussein had to be stopped before he developed such weaponry. No, the threat was real, and it was real today. That was why the United States could not afford to wait any longer, could not give further inspections a chance.

It has taken two months, but finally the obvious question is being asked: if Saddam Hussein was loaded to the gills with WMDs, why can’t the United States and Britain find any? Bush says the US military has uncovered two mobile bioweapons labs. But not a trace of any biological agent has been found on these trailers, and non-government experts question whether these trailers were built to produce pathogens. Maybe an arsenal will turn up. But the Bushies have begun backtracking. Rumsfeld suggested that the Iraqis possibly destroyed their WMDs right before the invasion. If so, why did US and British intelligence not detect that? Presumably the United States is offering would-be snitches millions of dollars in reward money for evidence proving the prewar existence of WMDs. Why hasn’t that money produced any slam-bam disclosures yet? Don’t market forces work any more?

There is a rising debate over WMDs (and even more so in Britain, where Prime Minister Tony Blair has been pilloried by critics within his own party for exaggerating the WMD threat in Iraq). The poohbahs of the American right–Rush Limbaugh, Will Safire, The National Review and others–have rushed to Bush’s defense, scoffing at the desperate lefties who are so upset about Bush’s success in Iraq that they are trying to tear him down by falsely accusing him of lying. But the fact remains: Bush oversold the threat. (Peruse my previous columns by clicking on the link below, if you need to be convinced.)

Yet, as of this writing, Bush has paid no price for his Iraq deceptions. Two-thirds of the public, according to polls, approve of how he handled the war. The same amount believes he did not mislead the American public regarding WMD in Iraq; 31 percent says he did. But here’s an interesting twist. In a USA Today/CNN poll, only 31 percent said they believe Bush’s WMD information was accurate, and 31 percent said that Bush believed the information he presented was accurate though it was not. That means close to two-thirds believed Bush was peddling (sincerely or not) bad info about a most serious issue: to go to war or not. But that has not affected his overall standing in the polls.

Some Democrats have started sniping at Bush on this front, and a few Republicans have muttered the obligatory remarks about the need to resolve “troubling questions.” The intelligence and armed services committees of the Senate and the House have announced they will examine the prewar intelligence on WMD and how the Bush administration used it. These inquiries could fizzle; they could become combustive. (Don’t bet on the latter, especially with Republicans in control.) What happens will partly depend on how the legislators in charge suss out the public mood. They will be less likely to probe this matter deeply if they believe, rightly or not, that Bush is beloved. Of course, it will be easier for Bush to maintain his beloved status if he is not challenged on his WMD assertions.

In war, is winning all that counts? (What would Vince Lombardi say?) The postwar situation is a mess. It will cost tens of billions of dollars and may require a US military presence in Iraq for years. WMDs have not been found. Nuclear material was plundered and is available for use by dirty-bombmakers. Still, the war is now retroactively supported by 64 percent of the public; only 29 percent don’t go along. Perhaps a majority of Americans don’t want to see any military victory mussed up with ugly questions.

It is hard to resist reprising the GOP call of yesteryear, Where is the outrage? Just imagine how much shock and complaining there would be if we learned that American Idol had been rigged. But Bush and his comrades can use deceptive means to launch a war and to pass trillion-dollar tax cuts that bust the bank–and then skate away. The ice they are on is a little less smooth and thick than it was a week ago. But much of the public, it seems, is still rooting for Bush. My hunch is that after September 11, many Americans want to see their president–who is now truly their protector–succeed. To conclude that the guy at the helm in these insecure times is not to be trusted can be frightening. Bush is proving–so far–that it is even easier for a president to escape popular outrage when he lies about war and taxes than when he lies about sex.