The Polls: Polling for a Defense: The White House Public Opinion Apparatus and the Clinton Impeachment

Article excerpt

The scandal surrounding President Bill Clinton and his subsequent impeachment and trial affords scholars a multitude of stories to tell--from abuses of executive privilege to partisanship run amok. One of the more interesting stories of the events of 1998 and 1999 is that of the contradictions emanating from public opinion polls as the scandal unfolded. Considerable commentary from the media, scholars, and political elites accumulated with regard to the public's seeming inability to completely condemn the president In this article, however, I will discuss Clinton's use of polls during the scandal/impeachment episode. While polling has become an important tool for presidential decision making, critics suggest that Clinton's use of the polls in this instance overstepped the bounds of propriety and perhaps violated some important democratic norms.

Presidents since Richard Nixon have incorporated polling into their White House decision making. A growing body of literature focuses on the role of public opinion in presidential decision making, as well as in the competition between the president and Congress to control opinion (Eisinger 1994; Eisinger and Brown 1998; Heith 1997, 1998, 2000; Jacobs 1993; Jacobs and Shapiro 1994, 1995, 1998, 2000). These research efforts document the rise of polling in the White House and have begun to examine the relationship between the poll apparatus and presidential leadership. During the period defined as the "awkward adolescence of presidential polling" from 1968 to 1988, the White House institutionalized the use of polls, relying on polls especially for speech writing and designing political strategies (Heith 1998, 2000). The Clinton administration continued this trend, but also seemed to be more obsessed with polls than its predecessors. As Jacobs and Shapiro (2000) observed, the Clinton administration extensively incorporated public opinion polling into its efforts to "craft" its message on health care.

The steps that the Clinton White House took immediately following the feeding-frenzied media response to the Monica Lewinsky scandal, however, appear to challenge accepted norms vis-a-vis presidential polling. Clinton did not merely link a speech or even a key legislative effort to the results of a poll. On or about January 21, 1998, Clinton and Dick Morris used polling as a way to test phrases, define terms, and design a political strategy to survive a potentially contentious storm. Months later, both the Independent Council and Congress would question the president's use of the polling apparatus to design his defiant January 26, 1998, "finger wagging" speech and impeachment strategy. Why did a well-documented application of presidential polling become a subject of impeachment? Was this case a critical test for the presidential poll apparatus?

Polling in the Clinton Administration

The Clinton administration accepted the incorporation of public opinion into presidential governing from its predecessors and raised the bat. According to Edwards (1996), "The Clinton administration is the ultimate example of the public presidency, one based on a perpetual campaign and fed by public opinion polls, focus groups, and public relations memos" (p. 234). Presidential interest in public opinion and surveys dates back to Franklin Roosevelt; however, most presidents downplayed the appearance of relying on polling. Publicly, polling was forbidden for anything beyond campaign tracking. Presidents and their advisers feared the negative reaction such as that received by Lyndon Johnson for his reliance on poll numbers. For example, Chief of Staff H. R. Haldeman (1994) noted how upset Nixon was with a newspaper column that quoted a staff member's assertion that the Nixon White House relied heavily on polls. Haldeman went on to note that Nixon was "most anxious to avoid any appearance of being like [Johnson]" (p. 34). Several years later, another White House staff member also warned his president (Gerald Ford) to disavow the White House polling apparatus: "I think you should not make any direct reference to a private poll (like [Johnson]) but simply use these things to strengthen your own personal convictions that the American people support you (when they do) in your policy positions. …