Appendix A: The Case of the Impeachment Process

The tumultuous and agonizing process that led to the impeachment of President Clinton offers a unique case study of how the public responded when the government acted in a way that was inconsistent with, and which the majority perceived as inconsistent with, the wishes of the majority. As we shall see, the majority not only opposed impeachment but perceived the majority as opposing it. The COPA poll was taken January 26-31—a critical moment in the process, shortly after the House vote to impeach, but shortly before the Senate vote to acquit. Thus at that moment the discrepancy between the House impeachment and majority opposition was most salient.

1 A strong majority believed that the investigation of, and the decision to impeach, President Clinton were not supported by the majority of Americans and were not motivated by concerns for what is best for the country.

It appears that many Americans were aware of polls showing majority opposition to the conduct of the investigation of President Clinton and the decision to impeach. Asked about their perception of the public’s attitudes, a strong majority expressed the view that the investigation and impeachment were carried out in opposition to the wishes of the majority:

  • 69% said that throughout the Starr investigation and the process leading up to impeachment, the government behaved inconsistent with the wishes of the majority of the American public;
  • 64% believed that the majority of Americans disapproved of the House of Representatives impeaching President Clinton;
  • 68% thought that the majority of Americans opposed removing President Clinton from office.

The probable causes of these perceptions of the government as out of step with the public are not hard to discern. At each of five key stages in the impeachment process from August to December 1998, the process took the direction that a majority opposed—as follows:

  • Initiating Congressional hearings: After Clinton’s television speech in August, 69% said that Congress should not begin hearings on impeachment (begin hearings, 24%; Newsweek, August 1998). A Pew poll at the same time found 61% saying that Clinton’s statement should "be enough to end the matter" (consider hearings, 32%).
  • The House Judiciary Committee’s public release of the videotape of Clinton’s grand jury testimony: All poll questions before the videotape was released in September showed a majority opposed to the release. In a Time/CNN poll (September 16-17) 67% called the release a "bad idea." The release itself on September 21 found little or no approval. On September 21, 61% said Congress’s release of the videotape was "wrong" (ABC). On September 22-23 in a CBS/New York Times poll, an overwhelming 78% said the release was "not necessary."
  • The opening of the formal impeachment inquiry by the House Judiciary Committee: In early October the full House of Representatives voted to authorize its Judiciary Committee to begin impeachment hearings. This move was consistently opposed by substantial majorities—from 57% to 65% in four CBS/New York Times polls in September. On October 7, 55% said they wanted their representative to vote against commencing hearings, while 40% said they wanted their representative to vote for commencing them (CBS).
  • The burying of the censure option: The possibility of a formal censure or reprimand of President Clinton by Congress, though much discussed in the media and in legislative corridors, never got a formal hearing that could lead to a vote in either the House or the Senate. From September 1998 to early January 1999, Gallup, CBS, and the New York Times asked the public whether it favored or opposed censure on a total of 25 occasions. It was favored by pluralities or majorities in the 48%-60% range throughout this period, and in December and January, support for censure was always 54% or higher. Despite this level of public interest, the censure option never made it to the floor of Congress.
  • The House vote to impeach Clinton: Gallup, using a question that described the House and Senate steps of the impeachment process (in order to dispel the possible confusion that impeachment meant actual removal from office), found more than 60% wanting their representative to vote against impeachment on seven occasions from October through December—and when asked, in addition, whether respondents "felt that way strongly or somewhat," a 53% majority said they were strongly opposed (December 15-16, 1998). Only a 31-36% minority wanted a ‘yes’ vote. In questions that offered three alternatives—a vote to impeach, censure or a fine, or dropping the matter—support for voting to impeach fell further, to 27% and 21% (both CBS/New York Times, December 1998).

A strong majority believed that those who voted in favor of impeachment were not motivated by what is best for the country.

Numerous other polls also found that the majority believed the investigation of and the decision to impeach the President were primarily motivated by partisan political interests. Already in August 1998, 59% thought that "the investigation against Bill Clinton has more to do with partisan politics," while only 30% thought it had more to do with "getting to the truth" (Los Angeles Times). In a poll conducted September 13—before the House Judiciary Committee’s hearings had even begun—when asked to choose between two statements, only 42% thought that "Congress will consider the charges against President Clinton in a fair and balanced manner," while a 50% plurality already believed that "Congress will primarily act in a partisan political manner when considering the charges" (Los Angeles Times). In a September 1998 CBS News poll, just 26% said "Independent Counsel Kenneth Starr is mostly conducting an impartial investigation to find out if anything illegal occurred," while 63% said he "is mostly conducting a partisan investigation to damage Bill Clinton." In October 1998 Washington Post polls, 71% of respondents said that they thought that "the Republicans in Congress ... are mainly interested in hurting Clinton politically," while just 23% thought they were mainly interested in "in finding out the truth."

The Senate vote acquitting Clinton was not (at least initially) seen as any more disinterested. CBS asked on the night of February 12: "Do you think that when it came time to vote on the articles of impeachment that most senators—Democrats and Republicans—voted based on what they really believed was the right thing to do, or do you think most senators voted based on politics and what was best for their party?" A mere 19% said that most senators followed what they thought was right, while an overwhelming 74% said most senators followed politics and party interests (Republicans: 82%; Democrats: 69%; independents: 75%). In the same poll, 78% said they thought of "the whole impeachment process mostly as politics" ("mostly the investigation of possible crimes": 19%).

A key reason that the majority rejected the process as a legitimate inquiry appears to be its belief that Clinton’s moral failings were not much different than most elected officials. The CBS/New York Times asked: "Do you think Bill Clinton has more…less…or about the same honesty and integrity as most people in public life?" Only 28% said less while 65% said about the same (38%) or more (27%) (August 1998). In the same month, Newsweek found only 24% thought that Clinton lies "more often" than "the average politician," while 62% said he lies about the same (58%) or less often (14%).

2 The majority felt that members of Congress should have voted on impeachment consistent with the views of their constituents.

While many members of Congress asserted that their constituents wanted the member to vote on impeachment according to their own conscience, a fairly strong majority of Americans felt members should vote according to the public’s views, rather than their own judgment.

Significantly, this attitude was not simply a function of how people feel about impeachment. Majorities favored sticking closely to public opinion both among those who favored impeachment and among those who opposed it.

Also, a December 1998 CBS New York Times poll asked, "When it comes to voting on the articles of impeachment, how much attention do you think members of Congress should pay to what the majority of Americans think about impeachment?" Eighty-two percent said a lot (62%) or some (20%), while just 14% said not much (6%) or no attention at all (8%).

3 The impeachment process exacerbated the already low perception of government responsiveness to the public and confidence that the government does what is right.

According to poll questions that have been asked regularly over the last few decades by the National Election Studies, the impeachment process was accompanied by a sharp increase in the public’s feeling of being marginalized. When NES asked "How much attention do you feel the government pays to what the people think when it decides what to do?" over November 4-December 23, 1998—primarily before the House vote—28% said "not much," compared to 22% in 1996. COPA polled at the end of January 1998, shortly after the House vote to impeach and shortly before the Senate vote to acquit: the percentage answering "not much" at that point hit an all-time high of 54%—13% higher than the question’s previous all-time high of 41% in 1982.

In response to the question, "How much do you feel that having elections makes the government pay attention to what the people think?", NES in November 1998 found 46% saying "a good deal," up from 42% in 1996—perhaps due to the initial impact of the surprise loss of Republican seats in the elections that had just concluded. But when COPA asked the same question after the House vote, the percentage saying "a good deal" dropped to 30%—12% lower than in 1996, and 7% lower than its previous all-time low in 1988. Presumably the public noted that the House Republicans proceeded with the impeachment vote, despite the fact that the surprising Democratic gains in the 1998 elections were widely read as a criticism of the Republican effort to bring about impeachment.

In response to the question, "How much do you trust the government in Washington to do what is right?" the percentage saying "just about always" or "most of the time" went down to 19% in the COPA poll. This level was seen frequently in poll results from 1993 through 1995, though not more recently. In polls taken in February 1999, trust in government showed a recovery to the levels found before impeachment—presumably because the Senate did move toward, and finally made, a decision consistent with the public’s wishes. Gallup/CNN found 34% trusting the government in Washington to do what is right on February 4-7; Washington Post found 32% on February 12-14, and Pew found 31% on February 18-21.

4 Though the investigation and impeachment of Clinton ended with Senate acquittal—a result conforming to the will of the majority public—three out of four Americans, looking back, condemn the entire process. Most Americans say it was harmful to the country and that the public was a "loser" in the process, even though its majority views ultimately prevailed.

At the close of the process that saw Clinton’s acquittal by the Senate, the public had little inclination to look back on the experience as affirming either the workings of government or the public’s own role. In a CNN/USA Today poll (February 12-13, 1999), an overwhelming 74% felt in retrospect that the impeachment process had been very (32%) or somewhat (42%) harmful to the country; only 26% said it had been not too harmful (16%) or not harmful at all (10%). Pew Research (February 18-21) found 63% felt the process had "hurt the country" a great deal (31%) or a fair amount (32%) (not very much, 24%; not at all, 12%).

The Pew poll found that a large majority (63%) felt that "public opinion has prevailed" (not prevailed: 34%). Nonetheless,52% still said the American public had been a "loser" in the process, and only 42% said it had been a "winner."