Public Against Impeachment, but Clinton Support Has Limits
Washington Post Staff Writers
Monday, December 14, 1998; Page A1
President Clinton approaches his showdown with Republicans in the House of Representatives buoyed by strong job approval ratings but also facing the possibility that he may not be able to rally a scandal-weary public to save his embattled presidency, according to a new Washington Post-ABC News poll.
The survey shows that six in 10 Americans want the House to vote down the four articles of impeachment it will consider on Thursday. But if the House goes the other way, an equally large majority -- 58 percent -- say Clinton should resign rather than fight removal in a Senate trial.
The conflicting and sometimes contradictory attitudes revealed in the Post-ABC poll underscore the dangers that confront Clinton and congressional leaders in both parties. Most Americans remain only mildly attentive to the impeachment process; even those who try to pay attention find it easy to become confused or overwhelmed, making it difficult for politicians and pollsters to predict public reaction to the historic events to come.
Betty Nevins, 61, a retired nurse living in Gulf Shores, Ala., is a Democrat who voted for Clinton twice. She doesn't want to see him impeached. In key ways, Nevins seems like precisely the kind of voter Clinton is counting on to tell their representatives in Congress that they are outraged at the prospect of impeachment and want the process stopped.
But if the president is impeached by the House, Nevins says, Clinton should resign to spare the country the ordeal of a trial in the Senate. "I think that this snowball thing needs to be ended as soon as it can," she said. "I think many of us just want this to be over, so we can go on to other things."
According to the Post-ABC poll, 58 percent of those interviewed said Clinton should resign if he is impeached, while 38 percent want the president to "fight the charges" in a Senate trial. Even among those such as Nevins who oppose impeachment, four in 10 say the president should voluntarily resign if he is impeached by the House.
Others caution against reading too much into those results because many Americans are unclear about what impeachment means. "I think people are confused by the process and the words that describe the process," said Andrew Kohut, director of the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press.
Kohut noted that other independent polls over the weekend reported that most Americans did not want Clinton to resign, though these surveys did not ask if Clinton should voluntarily leave office following a House impeachment vote. "I would want to see more polling backing up [the Post-ABC News result] before I came to the conclusion that the public wants to see Clinton resign" following a vote to impeach.
Whether Americans are fatigued by the scandal or merely confused by the arcane language of the debate, the poll underscores the critical importance of the House vote on the four articles of impeachment. While some GOP leaders have played down the vote as merely the prelude to the trial in the Senate, the survey results suggest that any action by the House could alter public attitudes in unexpected ways.
In recent days, Clinton has adamantly rejected any suggestion that he might resign if the House votes to impeach him. "I have no intention of resigning," the president told reporters in Israel on Sunday. House Republican leaders called over the weekend for him to step down.
A total of 1,004 randomly selected Americans were interviewed Saturday and Sunday for this poll. Margin of sampling error for the overall results is plus or minus 3 percentage points.
Clinton's job approval rating stood at 64 percent in the latest Post-ABC News poll, higher now than it was immediately before the Lewinsky scandal broke in mid-January. Despite the impeachment vote and prospects of a trial in the Senate, three in four said they expected Clinton to finish out his second term.
The survey also found that a majority of Americans continue to oppose impeachment and favor public censure. Currently, 38 percent of those interviewed said Clinton should be impeached and removed from office, up from 31 percent in October. A 61 percent majority said he should not be forced out, and half of those interviewed said they "strongly" opposed impeachment.
Those numbers are the mirror opposite of public attitudes toward a resolution of censure and public reprimand, which is favored by 59 percent of those surveyed, including majorities of Republicans, Democrats and independents.
Americans continue to fear the consequences if Clinton is forced from office. Half of those interviewed -- 51 percent -- said the country would be "worse off" if Clinton is impeached and removed from office by Congress while 13 percent expected that the nation would be "better" off and 33 percent said it wouldn't make a difference.
At the same time, the public remains sharply critical of Clinton. Eight in 10 said the president lied under oath about his affair with Monica S. Lewinsky and six in 10 said Clinton obstructed justice by attempting to conceal their relationship. Half of those interviewed -- 51 percent -- said the president "is still trying to mislead the public," while 44 percent believe Clinton has "honestly explained his actions." Still, most said Clinton's actions are not serious enough to warrant impeachment.
Now, weariness with the protracted impeachment inquiry coupled with the prospect of a long and bitter trial in the Senate has left many conflicted Americans more willing to accept Clinton's resignation in exchange for a quick end to the impeachment process: Only 29 percent of those interviewed said they would be "angry" if Clinton is forced by Congress to leave office.
A majority also agree that Clinton should be punished for his behavior in the Lewinsky matter. More than half -- 54 percent -- said the president should be forced to pay a fine if he is censured but not impeached and removed from office. An equally slim majority said Clinton should be charged with perjury and forced to stand trial after he leaves office.
Most Americans are critical of the partisan way that congressional Republicans and Democrats are handling the impeachment matter. Two in three agree that most members of Congress will vote on impeachment based on "partisan politics"; less than one in three say members will base their vote "on the facts of the case." This is one area in which members of the two parties agree: Nearly six in 10 Republicans and seven in 10 Democrats say party politics, not the facts, will determine Clinton's fate in Congress.
The public was somewhat more critical of the way congressional Republicans are dealing with impeachment. Nearly four in 10 said they approved of the way Republicans in Congress are handling the impeachment issue, while 46 percent approved of the way congressional Democrats were dealing with it.
Yet, in one more example of the public's conflicted views, 57 percent of those interviewed said the impeachment hearings before the House Judiciary Committee that ended last week were fair to Clinton. And half of those interviewed said they approved of the overall job Congress is doing.
Data from this poll is available online.
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company