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CBS Poll: Impeachment Too Harsh

As undecided members of the House of Representatives consider impeachment, the public remains steadfast in its opposition and says they want their member of Congress to vote against it, by margins of more than two to one.

By the same margin, Americans approve of the way President Clinton is handling his job, and a majority still does not expect the House to vote for impeachment, according to the latest CBS News/New York Times poll.


While many Americans see wrongdoing, the public continues to think of the whole situation as a private matter. Sixty-six percent believe Mr. Clinton probably committed perjury, and 53 percent say he probably obstructed justice by tampering with witnesses. But as they always have, the large majority of Americans [67 percent] sees this fundamentally as a private matter having to do with Mr. Clinton's personal life and not a public matter having to do with his job as president.

View This Situation As . . .


Given this consistent belief about the private nature of President Clinton's transgressions, impeachment is seen as too harsh a punishment for what Mr. Clinton has done. Sixty-one percent say impeachment is too harsh a punishment, while 32 percent describe it as fair.

Another compelling reason for the public to oppose impeachment is the possible impact on the country. When asked if a Senate trial would have a serious negative impact on the country in terms of economic confidence and the ability to get work done, 60 percent said they believed a trial would have those consequences.


To Impeach For What Clinton Has Done Is . . .?



By 63 percent to 31 percent, the public says they want their representative to vote against impeachment. Even among people who live in districts represented by Republicans, majorities want their representative to vote against impeachment. And while 59 percent of self-identified Republican respondents support impeachment, 33 percent do not.

Nearly two-thirds overall say they care a lot about how this all turns out, but the intensity of feeling depends on how one views impeachment. Seventy-four percent of those who favor their representative voting for impeachment say they care a lot, compared with 62 percent of those who are against impeachment.

With the House vote scheduled to begin in days, only 34 percent expect the House to impeach President Clinton. The majority of Americans still doesn't think the House will impeach him.


Senate Trial Will Affect U.S. Negatively?


Many Americans do think some sort of punishment is called for. Fifty-nine percent now say that the president needs to be formally punished in ome way. Only 35 percent would be satisfied to drop the matter entirely. Censure remains the most popular punishment. Fifty-six percent support that.

What about after the president's term of office is over? Thirty-three percent say he should be charged and prosecuted for perjury and obstruction of justice after he leaves office. Fifty-five percent say he should not. [A change in wording to this question used on the second day of interviewing specifically asked this hypothetical adding the condition: "What if President Clinton were not removed from office and finished his term?" In that case, slightly more people supported prosecution, but the majority still opposed it.]


Better For Country If . . .


When asked whether it would be better for the country if Mr. Clinton resigned now, the answer is no. Twenty-eight percent say it would be better if he resigned. Sixty-nine percent disagree. Public sentiment on this straightforward resignation question has remained relatively the same throughout the scandal.

In the context of impeachment, however, support for resignation increases. But a majority still thinks resignation is no better an option, even if the president were to be tried before the Senate. Forty percent say it would be better if the president did resign if the House voted to send the matter to the Senate for impeachment; 56 percent say it would not be better.

It is important to note that hypothetical questions can get very different results in part because they ask respondents to imagine an event. Results can also vary because the wording and the context of the imagined event may affect respondents answers.

All along, many of those polled have viewed the investigation as partisan. Judiciary Committee Republicans are viewed as partisan as well. Sixty-three percent say they mainly voted for impeachment to damage the president and the Democrats, and not because they thought the charges were serious enough.

In this poll, overall opinion of the Reublican Party has declined. Forty-one percent have a favorable view. Fifty-one percent do not. That figure is among the highest unfavorable ratings the Republican Party has received in a CBS News/New York Times poll and represents a 13-point increase in the unfavorable rating since September. The Democrats are viewed more favorably by the public. Fifty-seven percent have a favorable opinion of the Democratic Party, and 35 percent have unfavorable opinions—no change since September.


Does Clinton Share Moral Values With Most Americans?


In this poll, 66 percent approve of the way Mr. Clinton is handling his job as president. Only 29 percent disapprove. He gets the same high marks on foreign policy: 66 percent approve; 26 percent disapprove.

Clearly, not rocking the boat when the economy looks as good as it does is an important goal for many. Eighty-six percent say the economy is in good shape. And despite the year-long scandal, Mr. Clinton is still perceived as an effective leader. Sixty-eight percent say he has strong qualities of leadership. Sixty-nine percent say he can still be an effective president. And by 53 percent to 42 percent, the public says he can still be trusted to keep his word as president.

The scandal has taken a toll on how people view Mr. Clinton as a person. His overall favorable rating is much lower than his job approval. Forty-three percent say they have a favorable opinion of him. Forty-one percent have an unfavorable one.

And while President Clinton has real problems with the public on questions of morality, by about two to one people consider morals less important than a president's leadership abilities. Only 32 percent say the president shares the moral values of most Americans. Sixty-two percent say he does not. But by 62 percent to 25 percent, Americans say it is more important for a president to do his job effectively than to be a good role model with high moral standards.

There is more evidence that leadership matters more than morals in the public's view. Those respondents who think Mr. Clinton does not sare America's moral standards but think he does have strong qualities of leadership give him a 78 percent approval rating—even higher than his 66 percent approval rating among the general public.

This poll was conducted among a nationwide random sample of 1,180 adults interviewed by telephone December 13-14, 1998. The error due to sampling could be plus or minus three percentage points for results based on the entire sample.
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