Why Did Clinton Survive the Impeachment Crisis? A Test of Three Explanations

Article excerpt

In Federalist no. 65, Alexander Hamilton wrote that the impeachment process is a decidedly political one, We use data from a national survey conducted in September and October 1998 to examine explanations for Bill Clinton's survival of the impeachment crisis: the robust economy, his own high popular standing with the public, and the concomitantly lower public evaluations of his principal investigators, Independent Counsel Kenneth Starr and the Republican-controlled U.S. Congress. Our analysis demonstrates that the performance of the U.S. economy did directly influence public support for impeachment, resignation, continued congressional hearings, and censure (four potential punishment options), but not in the manner most often hypothesized. More favorable assessments of the U.S. economy actually were related to higher levels of support for punishing the president. Evaluations of the president proved to be a double-edged sword. Although higher evaluations of Clinton's personal job approval ratings and of his personal ethics ratings are related to lower levels of support for punishment, Clinton benefited more from the former than the latter, as his approval ratings were high while the public held considerable doubts about his ethics. Finally, we show that higher public evaluations of Clinton's primary investigators, Starr and the U.S. Congress, were related to higher levels of support for punishing the president. As both actors had an exceedingly low average approval rating, however, this dynamic worked to Clinton's advantage.

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On the eve of the Senate impeachment trial of President William Jefferson Clinton, political analyst for the Chicago Tribune William Neikirk wrote, "At this moment, one overpowering fact has emerged: President Clinton's popularity appears to be speaking louder than the evidence" (Neikirk 1999, A1). Despite the December 1998 House vote to impeach him, and despite polls showing that the public was deeply concerned with his personal ethics, Clinton's job approval rating remained in the 60 percent range. In explaining this phenomenon, many political pundits pointed to the performance of the U.S. economy. For example, Kenneth T. Walsh of U.S. News and World Report (1999) wrote, "Most of the disparity between voters' judgment of his character and his job performance is due, quite simply, to the booming economy." A poll by the same magazine found "73 percent of voters feel that because the economy is in such good shape, people will look the other way [on impeachment] as long as Clinton is reprimanded" (ibid.).

Why did President Clinton survive the impeachment crisis of 1998-19997 Was it because the public approved of the job he was doing as president? Was it because the public gave Clinton credit for the state of the nation's economy or believed they were personally better off financially? Or was there another reason, broad public antipathy toward those who investigated the president--Independent Counsel Kenneth Starr and the Republican-controlled Congress? Using data from a 1998 national survey, we test whether the economy, perceptions of Clinton's job performance (along several dimensions), and perceptions of his principal investigators, Judge Start and the U.S. Congress, are related to public support for four possible methods of punishing the president: impeachment, resignation, whether Congress should conduct hearings into the impeachment matter, and censure of the president. Our findings are consistent with Alexander Hamilton's prescient commentary from Federalist Paper no. 65 which suggested that political factors would play a central role in impeachment cases.

Public Evaluations of the President and the Politics of Impeachment

Article I, Section 4 of the Constitution prescribes, "The President, Vice President, and all civil Officers of the United States shall be removed from Office on Impeachment for and Conviction of Treason, Bribery, or other high Crimes and Misdemeanors. …