Public optimism about a bipartisan Senate impeachment trial has evaporated, and evaluations of the Senate's handling of the trial are as low as evaluations of the House after it voted to impeach President Clinton last December, according to the latest CBS New/New York Times poll.
Many Americans now view the Senate trial as partisan, and a majority steadfastly maintains that the president should not be convicted and removed from office. In the face of such public opposition, the Republican party's image remains negative, and Republicans themselves have concerns about the trial's impact on their party's public image and their chances in the 2000 elections.
EVALUATING THE TRIAL
Since just three weeks ago, opinion of the Senate's handling of the impeachment trial has gone from slightly positive to solidly negative. Now, 56 percent disapprove of the way the Senate is handling the trial.
This negative assessment is due in large part to the overwhelming perception of partisanship. By 60 percent to 28 percent, people think the Senate proceedings are mostly partisan, to damage Mr. Clinton, and not impartial, to see if any serious crimes were committed.
By 76 percent to 19 percent, people think senators are not working together in a fair and non-partisan manner Â— a harsher criticism than the House Judiciary Committee ever received on this question. And by almost two to one, the public blames Republicans, not Democrats, for this.
The decision to depose witnesses is unpopular. Two-thirds say witnesses aren't necessary for the Senate to be able to make a decision. Even more - 70 percent - think the videotaped depositions should not be made public.
Republicans nationwide are expressing concern about the impact of the impeachment proceedings on their party. More than half of Republicans think the way the House and Senate Republicans have handled the impeachment matter has hurt their party's public image. Republicans blame the way the House has handled matters more than they blame the Senate for that.
While the majority of self-identified Republicans thinks their party is in touch with what most Americans want to happen with the impeachment matter, 39 percent say the party is out of touch with what most Americans want. And more than a quarter of Republicans say their party is even out of touch with what most Republicans think should happen.
Nearly half of Republicans feel Congressional Republicans' handling of this will make it harder for Republican candidates to win elections in 2000. While self-identified Democrats are closely divided as to whether Democratic Congressional leaders have hurt or helped their party's public image, Democrats are much more sanguine about the impact of impeachment on their chances in 2000. By 50 percent to 36 percent, Democrats think the way the Democratic leadership has handled the impeachment matter wil make it easier, not harder, for their candidates to win in 2000.
Opinions about the Republican party overall have remained markedly negative over the past few months, while opinions about the Democratic party have remained positive. Currently, by 52 percent to 41 percent, people have an unfavorable opinion of the Republican party. And by 56 percent to 37 percent, the public is favorable toward the Democratic party.
Fifty-one percent say they'd be satisfied if the trial simply ended now, even without a final vote. In a separate question, 55 percent agree that impeachment is punishment enough and the matter should now be dropped.
As before, more than six in ten of those polled do not want President Clinton convicted and removed from office. Less than a third say they would want their own senators to vote to convict and remove Mr. Clinton, and only 14 percent think the Senate will actually remove the president from office.
The consistently more acceptable outcome among the public is censure. When asked if the Senate were to vote on censure, 55 percent say they'd want their senators to vote in favor of censure.
When it comes to what the public wants, only 20 percent think the Senate is paying a lot of attention to what the majority of Americans wants to happen with impeachment, while 58 percent think the Senate should pay a lot of attention to that.
Public opinion on most of these questions has changed little from the beginning of the proceedings. Nearly all say their minds are made up on the matter, and only 21 percent say they've learned anything new from the trial.
There is little public understanding of the two-part vote that's been proposed in the Senate [60 percent say they haven't heard enough about it]. But those with an opinion are more likely to say it's a bad idea than to think it's a good idea.
If the Senate were not to have a final vote on whether to convict President Clinton and remove him from office, 49 percent said the Senate would still be fulfilling its constitutional duties. Forty-five percent say it would not.
OTHER TRIAL ISSUES
Nearly two-thirds are skeptical that the Senate will be able to finish the impeachment trial in the next two weeks. Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott of Mississippi and the House impeachment manager Rep. Henry Hyde, R-Ill., have become more well known among the public in recent weeks, but majorities still don't have an opinion of them. For those who do, opinion is equally divided.
Public opinion of independent counsel Kenneth Starr remains more than two-to-one negative. Forty-eight percent say they have an unfavorable view of him; 22 percent are favorable.
Opinions of the chief trial witness, Monica Lewinsky, remain six-to-one negative. In fact, less than a quarter claim they personally would want to see Lewinsky's deposition.
POLICY ISSUES AND THE PATIES
Most Americans agree with President Clinton's priority for the federal budget surplus. Sixty-four percent think any surplus should be used to preserve Social Security and Medicare. Only 12 percent would choose the Republican priority of using a surplus for tax cuts.
Social Security, another prominent policy issue this year, is mentioned by 7 percent as the country's most important problem Â— up from just 1 percent in October 1998. By 51 percent to 30 percent, Americans think the Democratic party, not the Republican party, will make the right decisions about Social Security.
The Democratic party holds similar significant advantages over the Republican party on health care, education, solving the nation's problems overall, and leadership into the 21st century. Opinions about which party is better at reducing taxes is evenly split.
The Democrats have a slight edge over the Republicans for the first time in several years on the question of which party is better at reducing crime. The only measure of the eight tested in this poll on which the GOP has an advantage is on upholding traditional family values. By 48 percent to 32 percent, the public thinks the Republican party is better at that.
Despite the ongoing trial, President Clinton continues to receive a high approval rating. In this poll, 65 percent approve of the way he's handling his job as president; 30 percent disapprove. Seventy-two percent think he can still be an effective president Â— the highest number who have said this so far.
This poll was conducted among a nationwide random sample of 1,058 adults interviewed by telephone January 30-February 1, 1999. The error due to sampling could be plus or minus three percentage points for results based on the entire sample.