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    What America Thinks
    Maybe Nobody Cared

    By Richard Morin
    Washington Post Polling Director
    Monday, February 20, 1999

    Here's a mischievously contrarian thought. Perhaps the real impact of 13 months of scandal in the White House, impeachment and Senate trial will be that there will be no real impact. Nada. Nothing, or next to nothing. Despite the hyper-publicized fears of pundits and political scientists, maybe people's attitudes toward their government, toward the presidency and even toward the two parties will not be fundamentally changed by the recent unpleasantness.

    Of course, I'm trying to make these words as tasty as I can, because I'll probably be eating them someday soon. But even the most casual observer had to be struck by the absence of a public backlash, frontlash or lashing out of any sort in the first round of polling conducted in the wake of the Senate vote not to remove President Clinton from office.

    Yes, yes, yes – it is much too early to tell. But there are intriguing signs that the public may have one final surprise in store for those in the punditocracy who are expecting major fallout from the scandal.

    Certainly those who expected Democrats to get stern with Clinton once the president was safely past the Senate vote are going to have to wait at least a little longer. Clinton's job approval rating among Democrats stood at 92 percent – a new high – in a Washington Post survey of 1,010 randomly selected adults conducted over the weekend following the Senate's two not-guilty votes on Feb. 12. Not only that, the proportion of Democrats who favor censure plummeted from 52 percent last month to 23 percent after the Senate vote.

    Other results suggest that Americans may be willing to forgive and forget. In fact, many of them have already forgotten much about the scandal.

    More than half of those interviewed – 53 percent – said they did not know how their own congressional representative voted on the issue of impeachment last December. The collective memory of self-described registered voters wasn't much better: 47 percent said they couldn't recall. Even about half of those who said they were "certain" to vote in the next national election admitted they didn't have a clue how their own member of the House voted.

    Certainly we should expect better recall if Americans really were as exercised about impeachment as some Beltway insiders have claimed. America's collective amnesia over the House vote is particularly meaningful given the Republicans' fragile majority in the House and Clinton's vow to help return the chamber safely to the Democratic Party in the 2000 elections.

    There's scant evidence suggesting partisan fallout even among those who said they knew how their member voted. According to The Post's survey, 26 percent of those interviewed said their member voted in favor of impeachment, while 21 percent said their representative voted against.

    Among those whose representative voted in favor of impeachment, about four in 10 – 44 percent – said that vote made them more likely to support the member in 2000, while 21 percent said it made them less likely to vote for the incumbent.

    Among those whose representative voted in opposition, about four in 10 – 44 percent – said that vote made them more likely to support their member in the next election, while 22 percent said it made them less likely to do that.

    That's right: The results are the same, suggesting that House members' votes for impeachment helped their reelection chances, just as House members who opposed impeachment were helped in their districts. (This, of course, is just another way of saying that voters send men and women to Congress who really do reflect the will of the people in their respective districts.)

    The story in the Senate is much the same: Just as many people say they're more likely to reward their senator for a guilty vote on impeachment as say they would punish him or her. The same is true for senators who voted not guilty. The Post survey, as well as those conducted by the Los Angeles Times and the Gallup Organization, suggest it's pretty much a wash.

    And what about "trust in government"? Some observers fear that Clinton and Congress may have conspired to send confidence plummeting even lower.

    The first returns suggest that hasn't happened. If anything, The Post's poll suggests Americans are happier now with the federal government than they were before the scandal broke.

    More than half – 52 percent – in the latest survey said they were either "enthusiastic" or "satisfied" with the way the federal government works. In a Post-ABC News survey completed just two days before Clinton's relationship with Monica S. Lewinsky was first disclosed, 46 percent expressed a similarly positive view. And less than two years ago, in August 1997, only a third of the country – 34 percent – was as pleased with government.

    A less giddy story emerges when respondents in the Post survey were asked the National Election Study "trust in government" question. About a third of those interviewed – 32 percent – said they trusted government "to do what is right" just about always or most of the time, unchanged from January 1998, but still a major improvement from August 1997 when 22 percent expressed similar levels of trust.

    Those who hope the roof collapses on somebody as a result of the scandal might take some comfort in results suggesting that the scandal has colored perceptions of the two parties.

    In the latest Post poll, 39 percent of those interviewed said they had a favorable impression of the Republican Party, unchanged since 1996. But the proportion with an unfavorable view has increased significantly, from 33 percent last year to 46 percent. At the same time, 51 percent of those interviewed said they had a favorable impression of the Democratic Party, unchanged in the past year.

    But all of this could change. A souring economy quickly would do what a sex scandal has not yet done: Send trust-in-government measures south, squash Clinton's job approval ratings and perhaps, just perhaps, get Republicans out of the doghouse in time for the 2000 elections.

    Richard Morin is director of polling for The Washington Post. "What Americans Think" appears Mondays in The Washington Post National Weekly Edition. Morin can be reached at morinr@clark.net .

    © Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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