Appendix A: The Case of the Impeachment
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 26-31a 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 publics 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 opposedas
- Initiating Congressional hearings: After
Clintons 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 Clintons
statement should "be enough to end the matter" (consider
- The House Judiciary Committees
public release of the videotape of Clintons 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 Congresss 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 majoritiesfrom 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 Decemberand 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 alternativesa vote to impeach, censure or
a fine, or dropping the mattersupport 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
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 13before the
House Judiciary Committees hearings had even begunwhen 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 senatorsDemocrats
and Republicansvoted 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 Clintons
moral failings were not much different than most elected officials.
The CBS/New York Times asked: "Do you think Bill Clinton has more
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
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 publics 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 publics
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, 1998primarily before
the House vote28% 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 questions 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 1996perhaps 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 impeachmentpresumably because the Senate
did move toward, and finally made, a decision consistent with the publics
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 acquittala result conforming to the
will of the majority publicthree 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 Clintons
acquittal by the Senate, the public had little inclination to look back
on the experience as affirming either the workings of government or
the publics 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."