The Wrong Polls

Poublic-opinion polls give a mixed reading of Americans' opinions of President Clinton since the release of independent counsel Kenneth Starr's report last Friday.

The public continues to view Mr. Clinton's job performance quite positively, with favorable rankings in the low 60s. At the same time, however, Americans' evaluation of his moral character has sunk to a new low.

Too much can be read into these surveys. For one thing, Clinton's job ratings reflect a still-healthy American economy and its low unemployment. It's worth recalling that when Watergate began to heat up, Richard Nixon was already lagging in the polls as the 1973 oil embargo sent gas prices skyward and Wall Street into the tank.

But there's also the danger that the president and his advisers could wrongly conclude he can hold onto his job based solely on opinion samples.

The poll that counts most for Clinton's future is his ranking among 435 representatives and 100 senators. House members will decide whether or not to impeach. For now, signs on Capitol Hill point to continued erosion of his position. It may weaken further as more Starr materials are released.

The list of representatives and senators calling for the president's resignation continues to grow. While almost all are Republicans, the fact that Sen. Joe Biden (D) of Delaware dared to raise the issue in a closed-door meeting of Senate Democrats wasn't good news for the president. Several House GOP moderates, the people Clinton may most need to stave off impeachment, have joined those calling for him to step down.

Meanwhile, the Capitol Hill phones are flooded with thousands of angry callers, many imploring their member of Congress to impeach the president. While such calls are far from a scientific sampling, they do make an impression on elected officials.

The White House may be getting the message. It has sent senior aides to meet with Hill Democrats and hired new staff to deal with lawmakers. But GOP ire over news reports of House Judiciary chairman Henry Hyde's affair 30 years ago complicates the task.

Certainly Congress will listen to the public as it decides the president's future. But members also must vote their consciences. It's one thing to parade out White House lawyers on TV talk shows. The opinion Clinton most needs to convince, however, is at the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue.

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