Public Gives Clinton Blame, Record Support
Washington Post Staff Writers
Monday, February 15, 1999; Page A1
Most Americans approve of the Senate votes not to remove President Clinton from office but blame him for the impeachment trial and remain divided over what, if anything, should happen next, according to a new Washington Post survey.
A majority say the Senate should end attempts to censure or formally reprimand Clinton. But nearly half also believe that the president eventually should have to face criminal perjury or obstruction of justice charges, either while he is still in office or after he leaves in January 2001.
But the survey contained other news likely to reassure the president and further frustrate his political enemies. After a year dominated by a sex scandal that led to his impeachment and trial, Clinton has never been more popular with the American people.
While the public supported the impeachment verdict, most Americans disliked nearly everything that led to it. Partisan differences vanished as Republicans and Democrats alike expressed broad dissatisfaction with the impeachment process.
An even larger majority believed that Republicans had a fair chance to present their case against Clinton in the Senate. It was a view shared by most Democrats and Republicans questioned in the poll – but not by some prominent Republican Party leaders, who have expressed anger about the restrictions placed on the House "managers." By 54 percent to 42 percent, Americans say Clinton was more to blame for the impeachment trial and not Republicans in Congress.
Weariness rather than anger or glee seemed to best characterize the public mood at the conclusion of the nation's second impeachment trial.
"I'm just glad it's over with," said Ronda Edgerton, 33, a social services manager in Atlanta who was interviewed for the Post survey. "I think basically Clinton has been humiliated . . . but he did wrong, and I will admit he did wrong, and I think he admits he did wrong. I'm just glad we're finally at a place now where we can move on."
By 52 percent to 35 percent, Americans say they trust Clinton more than congressional Republicans to deal with the country's biggest problems. Moreover, Clinton's advantage is larger today than it was before the scandal surfaced 13 months ago, when 48 percent expressed more confidence in Clinton and 40 percent said they trusted the Republicans.
In fact by virtually every key measure, Clinton's job performance ratings are higher now than they were before the world heard the first reports of Clinton's relationship with former White House intern Monica S. Lewinsky.
Today, his overall job approval rating stands at 68 percent, up 8 percentage points from a Post survey taken immediately before the scandal broke in mid-January 1998. Three in four currently approve of the way Clinton is handling the economy, up 11 percentage points from the January 1998 pre-scandal poll. Two in three say they like the way Clinton is managing foreign affairs, another double-digit increase from pre-scandal surveys.
A total of 1,010 randomly selected adults were interviewed Friday night through yesterday. The margin of sampling error for the overall results is plus or minus 3 percentage points.
According to the poll, 64 percent of those interviewed approved of the "not guilty" verdict by the Senate on the two articles of impeachment while 35 percent disapproved. Nearly three in four said the Republicans had a fair chance to present their case against Clinton in the Senate.
More than half – 56 percent – said the Senate should "drop the case without censuring Clinton" while 41 percent said he should be censured or formally reprimanded – the first time in Post polls that a clear majority has failed to support censure.
Yet many Americans also remain troubled by the notion that Clinton may not be punished for his efforts to conceal an extramarital affair with Lewinsky. Nearly half – 48 percent – said Clinton should "face criminal charges at some point," with a majority of those saying he should be charged after he leaves office.
"If the evidence is there, that's where it should go," said Bill Gross, 44, a software engineer in Centerville, Ohio. But he does not support censure. "There's nothing in the Constitution that gives them the power to censure anybody in a different branch of government."
The Democratic Party appears to have benefited modestly from the scandal at the expense of Republicans. Nearly half – 48 percent – of those interviewed said they trusted the Democrats to do a better job "coping with the main problems the nation faces over the next few years," up slightly from 45 percent in last year's pre-scandal polls. At the same time, 37 percent in the latest poll expressed more confidence in Republicans – down from 42 percent last year.
Dissatisfaction with congressional Republicans has grown, and the public's impression of congressional Democrats has improved. Nearly half – 46 percent – of those interviewed said they had a unfavorable view of Republicans in Congress, up from 42 percent in 1996, and 51 percent expressed a favorable view of Democrats, up 8 percentage points in two years.
Overall, about half of all Americans – 46 percent – said they approved of the job Congress is doing, virtually identical to what it was before the scandal broke. Seven in 10 Americans say they approve of the job their own House representative is doing, down only slightly from pre-scandal levels.
The survey suggests that the verdict dramatically shifted partisan views of Congress. In the latest poll, Republicans were far less supportive of Congress than they were in December, when the House voted to impeach Clinton. Similarly, Democrats were more enthusiastic about the job Congress is doing after the Senate's "not guilty" votes.
The scandal's impact on the 2000 elections remains uncertain. While most observers expect Republicans to be hurt by perceptions that they went too far in their pursuit of Clinton, the Post poll suggests no clear political winners or losers have emerged so far.
In the presidential race, Vice President Gore continues to trail Texas Gov. George W. Bush, a potential GOP presidential hopeful. Bush was the choice of 50 percent of all registered voters, up from 45 percent in the pre-scandal poll in January 1998. Gore claimed 40 percent of the hypothetical vote in the latest poll, unchanged from last year.
About one in four – 26 percent – of those interviewed said they would be more likely to support their senator if he or she voted to convict and remove Clinton from office. A slightly larger proportion – 30 percent – said they would be more likely to vote for someone else.
Similarly, about one in four said a senator who voted to acquit Clinton would be more likely to get their vote. That is the same proportion who said a "not guilty" vote would send them looking for another candidate.
The effect of the scandal on the overall House vote in 2000 is likewise unclear. More than half of those interviewed – 53 percent – said they did not know how their House member voted on impeachment in December. The proportion who said they would penalize their representative for his or her vote was balanced by those who said they would reward him or her, a result that suggests the issue may not be a deciding factor in most House races. Nevertheless, how an incumbent voted could influence results in certain contests. And with Republicans holding slim majorities in the House and Senate, small shifts in voter preferences could dramatically change the balance of power in Congress.
© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company