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Opinion Polls' Lag Time May Benefit Clinton

By Ronald D. Elving, CQ Staff Writer

President Clinton has survived the first two weeks of his latest scandal in remarkably fine fettle, particularly if you measure political health by public opinion polls.

Almost daily soundings by the nation's leading pollsters have yet to reveal erosion of the president's peaks of approval, which have flirted with 70 percent for the first time in his presidency.

No one has an adequate explanation for why the president is doing so well in the midst of the Monica Lewinsky furor. But it is clear that the White House regards these vertiginous heights of popularity as the president's best defense -- or at least preferable to any he might offer in an open news conference. The polls are the implicit justification for a strategy of stonewalling that former President Richard M. Nixon himself might have admired.

While the Lewinsky controversy may never rise to the same level, it is worth remembering that Watergate, as a case against a presidency, was not built in a day, and the decision of most Americans to abandon their support of Nixon was not made overnight.

Shafts of light fell on Nixon's dark side in June 1972, when burglars were caught bugging the Democratic National Committee headquarters in the Watergate hotel-office complex. The few newspeople who went after the story began piecing it together that summer and fall: the program of dirty tricks and the illegal cash financing, the efforts to silence potential witnesses and shield the president.

While the revelations accumulated, the rest of the country tuned out. That November, Nixon carried 49 states in winning re-election. More than two months later, as the first Watergate defendants were going to court in January 1973, Nixon's numbers in the Gallup Poll were among the most robust of his presidency: 68 percent approval to 25 percent disapproval (a near match with Clinton's figures for late January 1998).

Of course, that was before Nixon began talking about invoking executive privilege to prevent White House aides from testifying about an alleged cover-up. When that key phrase, "executive privilege," became part of the discussion, Nixon's numbers started their descent.

In February, the Senate voted 70-0 to empanel an investigating committee of its own. Nixon's approval rating in the first week of April stood at 54 percent in the Gallup Poll. Most Americans were still withholding judgment.

Even after the April 30 speech in which Nixon announced the resignation of his closest aides, many Republicans continued to rally around the president. The Senate Republican leader, Hugh C. Scott of Pennsylvania, said the speech had proved that the president was "determined to see this affair thoroughly cleaned up." The governor of California, Ronald Reagan, said the Watergate bugging had been illegal but that "criminal" was too harsh a term because the convicted burglars were "not criminals at heart."

That same month, Republican state party chairmen meeting in Chicago adopted a resolution blaming "a few overzealous individuals" for Watergate and lending unequivocal support to the president. Vice President Spiro T. Agnew accused the press of using "hearsay" and other tactics that were "a very short jump from McCarthyism." The same comparison was picked up by the man who had succeeded McCarthy in the Senate, Democrat William Proxmire of Wisconsin, who said the media had been "grossly unfair" to Nixon.

By then, however, the bleeding in the Gallup Poll had dropped Nixon to just 48 percent approval in the first week of May -- a drop of 20 percentage points since January. And that rating would keep on falling through the 25 percent level before Nixon's resignation in August 1974.

Why are Clinton's public numbers so good? It is not enough to say that people are happy with peace and prosperity. That might explain Clinton's approval ratings prior to the Lewinsky case, but not the substantial increase in approval since.

Surely some of the bump came from the State of the Union speech, a 10-strike in substance and style that forced grudging admiration from sullen Republicans and nervous Democrats alike. Few politicians in any era could have borne the pressure at that rostrum that night and used the moment to such advantage.

But is that enough explanation? Or has Clinton benefited from a rallying of disparate individuals who want to send a message to someone other than the president at this particular moment? Poll respondents may be willing to side with the president for the time being as a way to register their dismay with the entire spectacle -- including the media's role.

Just as the initial analysis of the Lewinsky case assumed too much would happen too fast, the pendulum may now have swung too far toward predictions that the matter will be dismissed. And when the White House starts talking about executive privilege, keep a weather eye on those polls.

© 1998 Congressional Quarterly Inc. All rights reserved.
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Saturday February 7, 1998

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