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Mellman: Learning from impeachments past

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Surveys derive meaning from comparisons across time and space. With so little to go by, drawing conclusions about impeachments is difficult.

If there’s one overriding lesson from polling in our two previous cases it’s that sometimes impeachment inflicts damage and sometimes it doesn’t.

While perceptions of some aspects of Bill Clinton’s character clearly worsened, there is little evidence that impeachment took a politically meaningful toll on his image.

Before the Monica Lewinsky story broke, the president enjoyed a 58 percent approval rating according to Pew. On only a few occasions during the remainder of his presidency did Clinton’s approval rating dip even slightly below that pre-scandal 58 percent, and on average it exceeded that number.

Just a quarter to a third of Americans favored impeaching Clinton and removing him from office.

Richard Nixon followed a very different trajectory.

Through much of his first term, Nixon’s approval rating hovered around 50 percent, jumping to about 60 percent as he made historic trips to the Soviet Union and the People’s Republic of China, and through his reelection, only to fall back to 50 percent after his 1972 reelection landslide.

In January 1973, the U.S. and Vietnam announced, wrongly, that the long war was over. Nixon’s approval rating shot up — to 71 percent — then quickly dropped back to 50 percent, after it became clear the war was continuing and the Senate Watergate hearings began.

The fall continued as White House counsel John Dean testified against his boss and through the succeeding months of hearings and revelations.

By the time Nixon fired a series of Justice Department officials and the special prosecutor investigating him, in the “Saturday Night Massacre,” his approval rating had reached a low from which it barely budged despite the “Massacre,” the release of the infamous tapes and articles of impeachment being voted by the Judiciary Committee.

Public desire to remove him followed a somewhat different track. Shortly after the hearings began, just 19 percent wanted to impeach and remove Nixon from office, a number which grew after the Dean testimony and the Saturday Night Massacre, but only to 38 percent. 

Indeed, even after the indictment of seven top Nixon aides, just 44 percent told Gallup Nixon should be forced from office. 

Only after the House Judiciary Committee voted out articles of impeachment and the Supreme Court demanded Nixon turn over the tapes, did a majority (57 percent) support removing Nixon from office.

I reconstruct this rather long chain in an attempt to tease out several points.

First, we cannot be certain what caused Nixon’s precipitous decline. His approval ratings were already dropping as people felt duped by the faux end of the Vietnam War. 

Moreover, that same year the country slid into a severe recession and everything we know about presidential popularity suggests that too reduced his approval rating.  

There’s no doubt Watergate contributed to Nixon’s fall from public grace, but how much was Watergate, how much was Vietnam and how much was the economy? It might make an interesting dissertation.

So, while the impact of impeachment on Clinton seems minor, and its impact on Nixon appears massive, the effect of impeachment itself on Nixon may have been more muted.

Second, not every event produced a new reaction in the numbers. Nothing seemed to affect Clinton’s standing, while in Nixon’s case any number of significant events—Saturday Night Massacres, indictments, and press stories—had no incremental effect on public opinion.

One other noteworthy difference is the level of attention paid by Americans to the events.

Watergate captured the national consciousness. Hearings before a national audience went on for weeks. They were broadcast live, first on all three television networks, then on one at a time, while NPR stations bought them to live radio and PBS replayed the hearings at night. Eighty-five percent claimed to have watched some portion of them.

Clinton’s scandal, by contrast, barely broke into the top 10 news stories of the year as far as the public was concerned, with just 36 percent paying close attention to it. The House impeachment vote generated even less interest.

Finally, it may be true here too that, as Billie Holiday sang, “Them that’s got shall have. Them that’s not shall lose.” 

Nixon began as a relatively unpopular figure and lost ground, while Clinton was more popular and held his own.

Some of the lessons for today are obvious and we’ll consider others, as time goes by.

Mellman is President of The Mellman Group and has helped elect 30 U.S. Senators, 12 Governors and dozens of House Members. Mellman served as pollster to Senate Democratic Leaders for over 20 years and as President of the American Association of Political Consultants.

Tags Bill Clinton Clinton impeachment proceedings Impeachment presidential approval ratings Vietnam War Watergate

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