Public keeps raising bar for ousting Clinton

What will it take for public view to shift on removing him? Polls can't tell.

First the American people said that President Clinton shouldn't be forced from office just for having an affair. But if he lied under oath about it, said the polls, he should go.

Confronted with evidence suggesting that Mr. Clinton perjured himself, the people changed their minds. A majority said he should stay - unless the House impeached him. Then, he should resign.

The House impeached him. And the people ... changed their minds again. Polls said Clinton shouldn't quit. His approval rating lofted past 70 percent.

In general, public opinion about the Lewinsky imbroglio has remained constant since it began almost one year ago. But one aspect has been remarkably fluid: The public has continually changed its mind when judging what would constitute grounds for Clinton's removal.

"I don't know how to completely explain it," admits Brad Coker, president of the Mason-Dixon political polling firm in Columbia, Md. "Political numbers change and people soften."

The changes of heart seem to reflect a deep aversion to removing Clinton from office on the part of a majority of the public.

A number of social factors are contributing to this phenomenon, say experts. They include the robust economy, which makes many Americans unwilling to rock the national boat; the holiday season, which puts people in a good mood while distracting them from public events; and strong support from blacks, women, and feminist organizations, which provide Clinton with a stable political base.

But others believe that while those factors exist, there's more to the story than that. The seeming national indecision about Clinton's future is also influenced by the way pollsters ask their questions, they say. They suggest it's a crucial polling flaw.

Their objection is rooted in the fact that questioners frequently combine an initial query with a follow-up question that is highly speculative. The phrasing goes something like this: "If the House does X, for example, how would you feel about Y?"

The problem is that people often don't know, or give little thought to, how they will react to something that has not yet occurred. So when they were asked, "If the president is impeached, should he resign?" - well before the House actually passed two articles of impeachment - many people had no idea how they would feel. They did not think through the hypothetical portion of the question. Many respondents may have just given a spur-of-the-moment answer.

"People often really haven't thought about or considered how they will really feel once the [X] event has occurred," says Peter Shane, a University of Pennsylvania Law School professor. "What they are really saying is, 'If things get a lot worse I might change my mind.'"

Another key reason public opinion about Clinton's fate has seemed to change in reaction to the unfolding events of the Lewinsky drama is a phenomenon that some experts term the "inoculation factor."

This holds that if an impending event is discussed enough before it happens, the public will discount it when it actually occurs. The event then does not seem as important, or as dire, as it might if it happened unexpectedly.

"Everything is talked to death in anticipation, so by the time it happens it has the feeling of old news," says Lee Miringoff, director of Marist College Polls in Poughkeepsie, N.Y. "My feeling a lot of the time watching the events of the year was it was old news all the time."

This factor has played to Clinton's advantage, says Mr. Miringoff, because it has lessened the impact of the year's string of revelations about the president's behavior.

"Last January, if we knew what we know now, [Clinton] would literally be history," Miringoff says.

He adds that the White House has been adept at understanding this process, and the fact that people are simply swamped by information about the Lewinsky matter, and is using it to the president's advantage.

"He's done an excellent job in spinning this," agrees Fred McClure, a public-affairs consultant in Dallas, who served in the Reagan and Bush White Houses.

Mr. McClure says the underlying nature of the charges has also played to the White House's advantage.

"Had this been about more than sexual peccadilloes, he would not have been as successful," says the consultant.

Others say that, as the Washington drama has unfolded, the jury of the nation has refined its notion of what offenses are worth ousting a president for. Many baby boomers, they suggest, who lived through Watergate, simply don't think the punishment of ouster fits Clinton's actions.

People may disapprove, but they "are just reluctant to go to the nth degree of throwing a president out of office," Mason-Dixon's Coker says.

That sentiment is supported by polls taken in the wake of impeachment. The day Clinton was impeached, the independent Rasmussen Research Inc. found that of 1,000 adults polled, 61 percent thought Clinton deserved to lose the presidency - yet only 37 percent wanted the Senate to go through the process to remove him.

Republican leaders decry this disconnect. "The polls are unfortunate if they are accurate," Gary Bauer of the conservative Family Research Council has said.

Some recent polls suggest Americans believe that by impeaching the president, he has been punished enough. Further dampening a public outcry for removal is the unfavorable rating of the Republican Party, which hit 58 percent in a recent poll.

"Somebody once said Clinton has been lucky in his choice of enemies and that has a lot to do with how people see him," says Professor Shane.

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