I got polled the other day. It sounded legitimate at first. The pollster identified himself with a private polling company. He began by asking a few basic questions about my age, party affiliation, etc. Then he got to the meat.
“Do you find Monica Lewinsky to be credible?”
“Would your opinion change if you were told that she gave different stories of events to different people?”
“Would you be more likely to believe Monica Lewinsky or the president of the United States?”
As the survey continued, I became increasingly aware of the fact that this was not a poll designed to measure public opinion, but to change it.
“Do you approve of Independent Counsel Kenneth Starr’s aggressive tactics in pursuing President Clinton?”
“Would your opinion change if you learned that Kenneth Starr has pursued allegations against the president for four years and spent $30 million in taxpayer funds?”
“Would your opinion change if you were told that Kenneth Starr has relentlessly investigated the stories of dozens of women and their possible sexual relationships with the president?”
As strong as my opinions are on this subject, it became increasingly difficult to answer the questions because there was no appropriate choice provided. The argumentative nature of some reminded me of the old “When did you stop beating your wife?” conundrum.
This was no small-time operation, either. In the background, I could hear the voices of dozens, perhaps hundreds, of other pollsters asking similar questions. Who knows how many thousands of people are being confronted with these questions right now as you read this column? This was the kind of “polling” often conducted by desperate political campaigns in the final hours before an election – surveys designed to push people’s beliefs, plant seeds of doubt about an issue or attack an opposing candidate.
But wait a minute. This is February 1998, not October or November in a presidential election year. Who commissioned this survey? The Democratic National Committee? The White House? My pollster did not have any answers for me.
I suspect there is much more of this activity going on than most people realize. After all, I can’t remember ever being surveyed before – even in an election year. Why me? Why now? What gives?
I’ll tell you what I suspect. I believe there is a presidential campaign under way. It’s a campaign not to elect a president, but to save a presidency. And it is being conducted not only in obvious ways – speeches by the president, town hall meetings, media events – but in covert ways designed to keep Clinton’s poll numbers high. I’m not sure who is running it, but the possibilities are limited.
Think about it. This is a political campaign unencumbered by campaign financing restrictions. After all, no election, no election rules. No problem with foreign money or limits on soft money. “Pollsters” could be hired directly by people or political action committees sympathetic to the president. What law would be broken? And who cares about the law, anyway, these days?
The key is public opinion – or, at least, perceived public opinion. There is only one place the battle for the presidency will ultimately be decided, and that is in Congress. As long as that rudderless ship is being guided by polls – be they legitimate or illegitimate – then Clinton remains in the Oval Office.
Clinton is at his best when he’s in full campaign mode. And that’s where he is today. He will stop at nothing to remain in office. He will attack anyone in his way. He will never resign. According to his once-trusted adviser, George Stephanopoulos, he will take lots of other people down with him in a plan of mutual-assured destruction if he goes.
And he’s got plenty of ammunition to wage this “war,” a word chosen not by me but by another dear friend and supporter, James Carville. He’s got the dirt from some 2,000 FBI files on political opponents at his disposal. He’s got all the coercive power of the federal government – the IRS, FBI, ATF, FEC, etc. – at his fingertips. And, for the most part, he’s still got the media on his side.
Practically everyday a story breaks that I think should do in the Clinton administration. They are the kinds of scandals that would have finished off any other president in U.S. history. Yet, Clinton not only continues in office, his popularity rises.
America is on a dangerous path. The law means nothing. Right and wrong mean nothing. The polls mean everything. But who’s controlling the polls?