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Poll: Punish Clinton, Don't Remove Him

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  • Polling Director Rich Morin on Wording Questions (, Dec. 21)

  • By Richard Morin
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    Monday, December 21, 1998; Page A17

    Barely a day after President Clinton was impeached by the House, most Americans believe that he should be punished for his behavior in the Lewinsky scandal but should not be forced from office, according to a new Washington Post-ABC News poll.

    The survey also found that public sentiment for resignation plummeted immediately after the impeachment vote: Most Americans now say Clinton should defend his presidency and not resign.

    Clinton continues to enjoy strong public support following his impeachment and nearly four days of U.S. and British military strikes against Iraq. Two-thirds of those interviewed said they approved of the job Clinton was doing as president – nearly equal to the best rating of his presidency and an ironic counterpoint to Saturday's vote. An even larger proportion – eight in 10 – said they supported the U.S. military strikes against Iraq.

    The survey suggests that most Americans prefer a moderate approach to rebuking Clinton as a way of ending the political and constitutional crises precipitated by his affair with Monica S. Lewinsky, a former White House intern. Few Americans want to see Clinton driven from office over the scandal, but just as few want to see him escape without punishment, according to the survey.

    Most Americans also believe that the Senate will not vote to remove Clinton from office, a view that may reflect the public's hopes as much as its expectations. About six in 10 said they would be either dissatisfied or angry if the president is removed by the Senate.

    But the latest Post-ABC News poll also found that the country remains sharply critical of the president's personal conduct and divided over his fate. Just one in four believes he has high personal moral and ethical standards. And while a majority believed that the vote to impeach was based on partisan politics and not the facts of the case, 55 percent agreed that Clinton has only himself to blame for his impeachment.

    The survey revealed little public appetite for ending Clinton's presidency. When asked whether the Senate should remove Clinton from office, 33 percent said it should, down from 39 percent in a Post-ABC News poll Tuesday.

    Most Americans also believe that Clinton should be disciplined for his actions in the Lewinsky matter but disagree about exactly how he should be punished.

    Censure remains the most popular option – although it is the clear preference of less than a majority of the public. Four in 10 Americans say Clinton should be censured or officially reprimanded. About three in 10 said the Senate should remove him from office, and a similar proportion say they prefer that senators drop the whole matter, according to the poll.

    Political partisanship colors the public's views of what should happen next. Two out of three Republicans said Clinton should be removed from office; nine in 10 Democrats and three out of four independents said he should not. The two parties find more common ground on censure, but not much more: 45 percent of Democrats and 27 percent of Republicans favor censure over removal or taking no further action against the president.

    A total of 1,285 randomly selected adults were interviewed Saturday night and yesterday for the poll. The margin of sampling error for the overall results is plus or minus 3 percentage points.

    The new poll also found that an overwhelming majority of Americans have joined leaders of both political parties in expressing outrage over what Clinton on Saturday termed the "politics of personal destruction" and what one House member called "sexual McCarthyism."

    Those bipartisan cries of concern came after House Speaker-designate Bob Livingston (R-La.) stunned Congress by abruptly announcing that he would resign over past extramarital affairs, and that Clinton should do the same.

    Eight in 10 Americans, including large majorities of Republicans as well as Democrats, said they disapproved of the attention paid to adultery by elected leaders, while one in five said private indiscretions of public officials should be matters of public scrutiny.

    Republicans get most of the blame – or the credit – for making adultery a political issue, the poll found. Among those who disapprove of the new political morality, three in four say it is the Republicans' fault. Among respondents who approved of the increased attention paid to extramarital affairs, most credited Republicans for the change.

    The poll suggests that most Americans have ignored Livingston's call for Clinton's resignation. About half said they approved of Livingston's decision to quit the House, but about eight in 10 said his decision to quit did not affect their attitudes regarding a possible Clinton resignation.

    The survey also found that support for Clinton's resignation fell sharply as impeachment became a reality. Because attitudes toward resignation appear to be sensitive to a question's wording, The Post and ABC News divided the polling sample in half and asked each group a slightly different resignation question. Half were asked whether Clinton should resign or "fight the charges" in the Senate. The other half were asked whether he should resign or "remain in office and stand trial in the Senate."

    Both questions revealed a strong shift away from resignation in the wake of the impeachment vote. The proportion of Americans who said Clinton should resign rather than "fight the charges" fell from 57 percent on Tuesday to 42 percent over the weekend. And when asked to choose between resignation and Clinton continuing in office and facing a Senate trial, the proportion favoring resignation fell from 43 percent Tuesday to 33 percent in the latest poll.

    The difference in support for resignation between the two questions is important for Clinton and his defenders. It suggests that a significant share of his public support may erode if he decides to vigorously contest the charges – particularly if his defense centers on legalistic disputes over definitions of sexual relations that most Americans find implausible.

    But Republicans also need to avoid appearing too zealous in their prosecution of Clinton. Clinton has benefited from portrayals of the impeachment process as overly harsh and partisan – views that might be fed if Republicans insist on ousting Clinton without first winning over a skeptical public that currently believes his transgressions do not justify removing him from office.

    © Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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