Not surprisingly, liberal and conservative journalists are now presenting not only opposing spins on Washington intrigue-who's to blame for our current mess, Bill Clinton or Ken Starr?-but dueling polls.
On liberal-dominated network television, Peter Jennings and others push results of polls they commissioned that show a big majority of Americans praising President Clinton's job performance. On conservative-dominated talk radio, Rush Limbaugh cites a Zogby International poll he commissioned that shows only one in four Americans viewing the current president as a role model for their children; only one in seven considers it acceptable for "a U.S. president to have consensual sex with a 21-year-old intern."
The Zogby poll has received far less press attention than other polls, but it is a statistically valid survey of 1,000 likely voters nationwide with a margin of error of 3.2 percentage points in either direction. The results show that favorable or unfavorable ratings for leaders shift dramatically when questions are phrased differently. That's one of the reasons not to rely on polls; and yet, polls, not hard evidence, could determine whether Mr. Clinton pulls another Houdini escape.
Why? Because, even if the evidence against the president continues to mount, he is unlikely to face criminal prosecution. Talented Clinton public relations experts and their media allies have shifted the spotlight from presidential cover-ups to Ken Starr's standard prosecutorial methods of uncovering lies, but Mr. Clinton is probably fortunate to have the special prosecutor he has. Mr. Starr is on record as saying that he does not think that sitting presidents should be indicted and that it is better to turn over the information to Congress for impeachment proceedings.
Right now, at least, the Republican leadership does not seem inclined to push impeachment very hard. That may be because some of the leaders have skeletons in their own closets, and it may be because the most-reported polls show President Clinton riding high. This could change if congressional hearings eventually bring forth dramatic testimony, but even the press-hated Richard Nixon only succumbed when tapes with his own voice made it perfectly clear that he had obstructed justice. If there is any ambiguity concerning Mr. Clinton and his poll numbers stay up, the poll-worshipping politicians are unlikely to press hard.
If this happens, it will be one more recent GOP abdication. Incidentally, we should not blame the craft of polling itself. An upright politician can use a poll not to tell him what to say, but to let him know what the reaction will be when he does take a stand, so he will be able to frame his arguments in the most salient manner. But using a poll honestly requires courage. Framing arguments is different from abandoning arguments.
The problem comes when would-be leaders let the poll numbers lead. Republicans in 1994 gained a congressional majority by drawing dividing lines on issues, but the top party men in Washington now seem committed to avoiding real debate. Republicans talk privately of Mr. Clinton's apparent breaking of several commandments, but poll-worshippers violate the first: You shall have no other gods before me.
Disobeying the first, of course, commonly leads to breaking all the others. As King David said about his adultery when he was asking God for mercy, "Against you, you only, have I sinned" (Psalm 51:4). Every adulterer, at the moment, considers his Bathsheba or Monica more important than God. Every politician who does not say what he knows to be true because of polling fears is working to glorify himself rather than God.
Those who worship public opinion should imitate Joshua in the Old Testament, who did not care that almost all of the Israelites had become craven after hearing the reports of most of the spies: He still knew that God wanted invasion, and from his own experience he later spoke of the importance of being bold and courageous. Or, poll-worshippers should follow Paul in the New Testament, who knew what was right even when his own people were against him.
Chapter 17 of Acts even records how Paul, by modern standards, blew a great opportunity. Early in his speech before the Athenian elite he had them in the palm of his hand. He had made contact. He had impressed them with his erudition. Paul at that point should have paid attention to polling data showing that "resurrection of the dead" was a turn-off phrase. He could have achieved greater popularity by concluding his speech this way: "Let us carry on the conversation. Let us continue to wrestle with the issues." Instead, he preached Christ crucified and risen.
Let us strive to make public opinion polls servants and not masters.