Introduction and Summary

Public support for the continuance of the Clinton presidency is unchanged by the deliberations and decisions of the House Judiciary Committee, but Americans appear unrattled by news of the President’s possible impeachment.

Majorities say that their opinions about whether Bill Clinton should be removed from office were not swayed either by the hearings or by the Committee votes in favor of four articles of impeachment. By a wide margin, people continue to feel that based on what they know now, Clinton should not be impeached and removed from office (67%-29%).

However, the nationwide survey of 1,201 adults, conducted December 9-13 as the House Judiciary Committee cast historic votes for impeachment, found Americans in remarkably good spirits. Most of Pew’s respondents said that 1998 has been a good year for them (72% ), a good year for their community (78%), a good year for their state (74%), and even a good year for the country (59%). Further, there is little indication that the prospect of impeachment is dampening public optimism: 59% of Americans think 1999 will be an even better year for them.

At 61%, public approval of Clinton’s job performance is in line with this rosy view of things. However, opinion is not all positive for him. A 53% majority of Americans disapprove of the way he has handled the investigation. Moreover, there is little indication that Clinton’s talk to the nation last Friday gained him much public sympathy. In fact, respondents interviewed after his statement were marginally more critical than those interviewed before it (55% vs. 50%).

The President is not alone in getting a bad public review. All of the key players in the investigation are judged poorly by the American people. By a margin of 59%-33%, the public disapproves of Republicans in Congress for their handling of the inquiry. Chairman Henry Hyde also gets a negative rating: 37% approve, 43% disapprove. Democrats were judged only somewhat better: 44% approve, 46% disapprove.

Looking forward, the GOP can expect even more public condemnation should they impeach Bill Clinton: 33% of Pew’s respondents said they would have a worse opinion of Republicans in Congress, if they take this step, compared to 13% who said they would have a better opinion of them. Tellingly, only 27% of rank-and-file Republicans would have a better opinion of their party should they impeach the President, while 42% of Democrats and Independents would have a worse view of the GOP.

Also, looking ahead, the public thinks that similar scandals could best be avoided by making sure that a president’s private life remains private, rather than by electing a president with high moral character. Here partisanship makes a big difference as Republicans put an emphasis on a president of high moral character by a 64%-31% margin, while Democrats (14%-83%) and Independents (34%-60%) opt for more personal privacy for the country’s chief executive.

Moderate Attention Paid

Despite extensive media coverage of the impeachment debate and votes in the House Judiciary Committee, the public showed no more interest in the story this past weekend than it did all year. Just 32% of the country reported following the story very closely during the final Committee debate. This is consistent with the interest in the story throughout 1998. In fact, 64% of the public believes the media is giving too much attention to the story.

The muted interest is consistent with the low priority Americans place on impeachment. Just 28% of the public believes impeaching and removing President Clinton from office is very important to the nation. By contrast, three times as many Americans say that making Social Security financially sound is very important to the nation (87%).

Two-thirds of the public maintains that Congress is paying too much attention to the issue (65%), and they see politics motivating both Clinton’s critics and his defenders. By a margin of 71%-18%, the public says Republicans are pursuing impeachment for political reasons rather than because what Clinton did was serious enough to end his presidency.

Democrats are seen with only slightly less jaundiced eyes: By 61%-26%, Americans say Democrats too are motivated by politics rather than the belief that Clinton’s actions are not that serious.