The latest polls gauging American public opinion about the Clinton sex scandal make no sense at all.
A majority of Americans believe President Clinton had a sexual affair with a White House intern. A majority doesn’t think he should resign over it. A slight majority also believes Clinton lied about having an affair. For that, a majority thinks he should go.
How can people say two completely different things at the same time?
“This is public opinion in the making,” said Andrew Kohut, who conducts and analyzes polls for the Pew Research Center here. “This all has happened very quickly. It’s contradictory because people haven’t really thought it through.”
Although the allegations - which the president denies - are all the buzz from snowed-in Maine restaurants to Oregon talk shows, people are not really sure what to think. Not yet. And they’re not at all sure what should happen next.
The country is holding its breath.
“People still hold great affection for the office of the presidency and believe it is a symbol of stability for the country,” said Richard Harwood, head of the Harwood Group of Bethesda, Md., which studies people’s attitudes toward politics and government.
“There are very few people out there who want to see the presidency fall. Most people are hoping these allegations are false, for the sake of the presidency itself.”
Polls in the past few days by The Washington Post/ABC News, The Wall Street Journal/NBC News and the Gallup organization all found that a majority of people believes it is true that President Clinton had some kind of sexual relationship with Monica Lewinsky, a former White House intern.
But a majority, again, doesn’t believe that’s reason enough for Clinton to resign or to be impeached. Seventy-one percent said it wasn’t, in the Gallup poll.
A majority also believes Clinton lied under oath about the affair. And a majority believes that’s enough to make him resign.
“People are saying, for sexual transgression alone, no, he shouldn’t go. But once the public debate changes and it focuses less on ‘did he do it?’ to ‘is he telling the truth?’ that’s where the president’s risk of a greater loss of support rests,” Kohut said. “People are heartsick,” he added. “It doesn’t make them feel good about the country.”
That sick feeling is true for all but the most rabid anti-Clinton partisans.
“It demeans the office and it demeans our nation and it makes me sad,” said Susan Pelter, who heads a Republican think tank in Jacksonville, Fla. “At first, I was torn between glee and horror, glee that something finally stuck to Clinton, but the horror of what could happen quickly overwhelmed it.”
For Oregonians, the allegations bring up painful memories of the time Sen. Bob Packwood was forced to resign in 1995 over reports of unwanted sexual advances to women, including young interns.
“Partisans said they knew about him all along,” said Jim Moore, a political science professor at the University of Portland in Oregon. “And people who knew him or liked him had a real sense of tragedy.
“People here feel Clinton has had a successful presidency. It hasn’t been spectacular, but he’s been moving things slowly and surely. And to have things fall apart because of something like this - which people think is wrong but not a big deal - they’re really torn.”
In the Midwest, Barbara McGowan, a presidential scholar at Ripon College in Wisconsin, said people don’t much want to talk about the allegations.
“This is not Clinton country, but he is really popular in terms of his policies,” McGowan said. “He’s like Woody Allen. You know he has a bad character, but you still like his movies. People are disgusted with Clinton for letting them down, with the media and the special prosecutor for making us confront something we knew but perhaps weren’t interested in focusing on.”
White House officials have made much of the fact that Clinton’s overall “favorable” ratings in the polls have fallen only slightly, hardly the free fall that some pundits forecast.
Everett C. Ladd, executive director of the nonprofit Roper Center for Public Opinion Research at the University of Connecticut, said those figures can be misleading.
“The country’s in terrific shape, the economy and our international position are strong. If you’re any president of the United States at a time when things are going swimmingly, you draw some real benefits,” Ladd said.
When it comes to Clinton personally, Ladd points to another, more revealing and damning survey last year about presidential ethical standards. “Clinton had slightly higher marks than Nixon,” Ladd said.
With that, and the string of allegations and investigations and baggage Clinton carries with him, Ladd said the president is far more vulnerable to shifting public opinion.
Ladd said it was hard to know when the public gives up on a president. He noted it took two years before Nixon was ousted. “But,” he said, “I think Clinton is on the edge of it.”
MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: STAND BY THEIR MAN Even as he faces renewed allegations of sexual impropriety and harassment, President Clinton retains a significant base of support among women. A Wall Street Journal-NBC poll found that four in 10 women surveyed Saturday said they had a generally negative view of Monica Lewinsky, while only 30 percent of men did. A CNN survey found a similar split and also that more men (64 percent) than women (58 percent) believed that Clinton had an affair with the former White House intern. Clinton’s job approval rating in the CNN survey was 63 percent among women and 57 percent among men - virtually unchanged since before the new allegations emerged last week, a CNN spokesman said.