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    What America Thinks
    The Persistent Shadow of Richard Nixon

    By Richard Morin
    Washington Post Polling Director
    Monday, May 11, 1998

    Richard Nixon and Bill Clinton are the night and day of American politics. Even the impact of scandal on their presidencies signals the magnitude of the personal and political differences between them. Watergate brought the Nixon administration crashing down around him. Allegations of sexual adventurism and harassment seemingly have sent Clinton's job approval ratings through the White House roof.

    But wait, says political scientist Everett Carll Ladd, executive director of the Roper Center for Public Opinion Research at the University of Connecticut. Ladd has examined polls taken during President Nixon's final years in office. His review suggests that it's far too early to suggest the public has made up its mind about Clinton and the allegations that dog him.

    "Upon reviewing polling on Watergate, we are struck by how much the dynamic in public thinking them resembles what we're seeing today," Ladd wrote in the current issue of the Public Perspective, which is published by the Roper Center. Those similarities include:

  • No rush to judgment. Barely three months after the Monica Lewinsky matter first made headlines, surveys show that few Americans want Clinton removed from office, even if it's true that he had an affair with Lewinsky when she worked as a White House intern. Less than half of the country favors throwing Clinton out – even if he has lied about the affair under oath.

    But those numbers could change. Support for ousting Nixon grew slowly and somewhat fitfully between June of 1973 until he resigned in August of 1974.

    "The most striking finding from polling on Watergate is how slowly and reluctantly many Americans came to accept the idea of ousting the president," Ladd wrote. "We wanted an investigation of the scandal, but until very late we really didn't want Nixon kicked out." Throughout 1973, survey data assembled by Ladd showed that majorities said Nixon should remain in office. Support for resignation or impeachment grew as the hearings proceeded in 1974, "but even then tentatively and uncertainly," he reported. Just three months before Nixon resigned, half of those interviewed in a Gallup poll said Nixon's actions were not serious enough "to warrant impeachment and removal from office."

  • A nation of laws and "what ifs." Almost from the start of the Lewinsky matter, it has been lies, not sex, that trouble most Americans. Hardly anyone currently says Clinton should be forced from office if it is found that he had consensual sex with Lewinsky. But nearly four in 10 in a Washington Post survey in April said Clinton should leave office if it is found that he broke the law by lying under oath about their relationship, or if he encouraging others to commit perjury. "Similarly, support for Nixon's forced exodus jumped whenever "ifs" were added about firm evidence of illegal action – if he had participated in the Watergate cover-up, or if he refused to hand over subpoenaed documents and tapes," Ladd wrote.

  • Partisan divides. Ladd argues that analysts have placed too little emphasis on the decidedly partisan nature of Clinton's current support. A Gallup Organization survey for CNN and USA Today in March found that 51 percent of all Republicans but just 4 percent of all Democrats and 21 percent of political independents said there was "enough cause right now for Congress to begin hearings into whether or not President Clinton should be impeached."

    In the same vein, two out of three Republicans but a third of all Democrats said in a Yankelovich Partner survey for Time and CNN that Clinton should be removed from office "if the evidence shows that Bill Clinton lied under oath about making a sexual advance toward Kathleen Willey." Ladd says the partisan divisions over Watergate were even deeper. In early August 1974, a Gallup survey found that seven in 10 Democrats wanted Nixon to be impeached and "compelled to leave the presidency;" among Republicans, a strong majority – 59 percent – wanted him to stay in office and only 19 percent said he should be removed.

  • A mesmerized media. Almost from the start, big majorities have said the media is paying too much attention to allegations of sexual improprieties directed at Clinton.

    Ladd says that's deja vu all over again: "During Watergate as today, much of the public expressed irritation at the extent to which the scandal was drawing attention from the real life of the country." Just two months before Nixon resigned in August of 1974, 51 percent of those interviewed by Gallup said the news media have "provided too much coverage" of the Watergate scandal, while 19 percent said "the right amount" and 15 percent said too little.

    All that said, Ladd notes that there's "one big, related set of differences" between the Lewinsky/Willey/Paula Jones scandals and Watergate – the economy.

    A booming economy currently buoys Clinton and buffers his presidency. Currently, three in four Americans say the economy's in good shape and President Clinton's job approval rating in the latest Gallup poll is nearly as high. Rising inflation, the 1973 oil embargo and the consequent surge in gasoline prices sent Americans into an ugly funk: seven in 10 in a Yankelovich survey said the country was in "deep and serious trouble," and Nixon's job approval rating "followed exactly the same track as these measures."

    None of this means that Clinton will suffer Nixon's fate. But they do suggest that Clinton may be in far greater risk than current survey numbers first suggest. "We know, of course, the end result of the Nixon scandals; in Clinton's, the jury – American opinion – is still out."

    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 1998 The Washington Post Company

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