Study shows Clintonignored public will

Brett Knapp

America faces four more years of a president under whose leadership the government ignored the public’s wishes more than any administration ever recorded, according to a University professor and his colleague.
A report by Professor of Political Science Lawrence Jacobs says President Clinton’s administration generally ignored public opinion during his first term more than any time since public opinion polls began to be reliably used in the mid-1930s. Instead, lawmakers relied on personal beliefs and ideologies when designing policy.
“What we’re suggesting is a challenge to the current presumption of reality,” Jacobs said. “If you believe that democracy needs a grain of public opinion, then (the findings are) a bad thing.”
Politicians instead used public opinion information to identify language that would help build public support for Clinton’s policies, the report states.
Columbia University Professor Robert Shapiro co-authored the report.
Jacobs and Shapiro studied public opinion polls taken during Clinton’s first term and determined whether prior majority support led to congruent policy decisions on four major issues — welfare, crime, social security and health care — by the government. They also interviewed more than 100 people who advised or worked in the executive and legislative branches during the past four years.
In 38 cases during the first two years of Clinton’s first term, when public opinion indicated a desire for change in policy, the government acted in concert with the polls only 14 times. This amounts to a 36 percent response rate, as opposed to the 67 percent response rate during Ronald Reagan’s second term. But the government has been becoming more unresponsive since 1980, the report states.
The response rate improved slightly during the fall of 1996, however, just in time for the elections.
“Just before an election, politicians don’t want to be seen as too far outside public opinion,” Jacobs said. “But prior to (election years), they feel they have more latitude and freedom.”
Jacobs and Shapiro noted that although supporters of Clinton might say Congress often blocked the president’s desire to do the public’s will, evidence shows the president generally developed policy based on his own convictions.
The study states that the poor governmental responsiveness destroys the myth of pandering politicians who will do whatever their constituents demand. Instead, the divisive partisanship in Washington encourages politicians to focus on directing public opinion in support of their goals, the report states.
Jacobs said that neither type of politician is best for the American model of democracy. “Ideally what you’re looking for is a combination of both response to public opinion and leadership,” he said.