Does Impeachment History Provide Guide for Future? Yes and No

In assessing the first impeachment of President Trump in 2019 and 2020 Senate trial, many observers mainly remembered the impeachment of President Clinton, which backfired politically against Republicans in the short-term. They lost congressional seats in the 1998 midterms. Even John Boehner, one of the leaders of the Clinton impeachment, said decades later in his memoir that he regretted it because it was a solely partisan initiative causing Republicans to lose seats in the midterm elections.

The number two Republican, Tom Delay, insisted that his party would win lots of seats in the 1998 midterms by attacking Clinton personally. He turned out to be very wrong, Boehner noted.

But impeaching Clinton probably did help them win the extremely close presidential election of 2000, George W. Bush against Clinton’s vice president, Al Gore. Bush lost the popular vote by 250,000, but won the electoral college after the Supreme Court declared he won Florida by 527 votes.

(Update: The first impeachment of President Trump probably did hurt him in the November 2020 election, but not fatally. He might have won re-election if the economy was humming as strongly as it was in February 2020. What defeated him was his response to the pandemic and the hundreds of thousands of lives lost. What lost the Senate narrowly was Trump and the divided Republicans of Georgia.)

The impeachment of President Nixon ultimately became bipartisan and definitely worked in the Democrats’ favor. They gained a large number of congressional seats in the mid-term election of 1974 and won the presidency, barely, in 1976 with Jimmy Carter.

“A presidential impeachment cries out for historical context. The past is supposed to offer a map of sorts through what feels like an unfamiliar and treacherous adventure,” wrote David Greenberg, a professor of history and journalism and media studies at Rutgers University, in Politico.

Students of history may recall that the impeachment of Andrew Johnson by the US House and vote to remove him from the presidency by the US Senate in 1868 failed by just one vote, and is generally regarded by historians as a mistake. Johnson had refused to enforce the Tenure of Office Act, which stated that the president could not remove certain office-holders without the approval of the Senate. The law was clearly unconstitutional in its attempt to restrict presidential authority.

If Johnson were removed, Senator Benjamin Wade of Ohio, president pro tempore of the Senate and a leader of the Radical Republicans, would have become president for the few months remaining in Johnson’s term. But Johnson would not have been elected in his own right in 1868 after succeeding Abraham Lincoln in 1865 — he was too unpopular within his own Democratic Party, which considered him a traitor to both the party and the South by joining up with the Republican Party. Lincoln had chosen him in 1864, ironically, to emphasize national unity — by reaching across the aisle to pick an anti-slavery Democrat  from Tennessee.

Lincoln’s vice president during his first term, Hannibal Hamlin of Maine,  was deeply unpopular. Lincoln and his supporters joked that Hamlin was “insurance against impeachment.” They did not consider how Johnson, too, would become deeply unpopular with both Democrats and Republicans, and temperamentally unsuited to, in Lincoln’s words, “bind up the nation’s wounds” after the civil war.

But the bitter impeachment of Andrew Johnson (and near removal) solved nothing, as politicians seemed to learn in retrospect.

Historian Greenberg recounted presidential impeachment history and noted the political lessons learned. “The ill-advised impeachment of Johnson played a part in discouraging Congress from trying it again for more than 100 years. The successful revival of the impeachment machinery to use against Nixon, conversely, emboldened Republicans to try it against Clinton. And the abuse of the process against Clinton until now had deterred Democrats from using it against Trump.”

If Clinton were removed, Democrats probably would have won the election of 2000 with Al Gore running as the incumbent president. But it’s unlikely the much-loved (among Democrats) Barack Obama would have succeeded him in 2008 unless Gore was succeeded by a Republican (Bush, McCain) in 2004. McCain in 2008 had the twin burdens of defending an unpopular war in Iraq and responsibility for the Great Recession.

I would add the following:

The impeachment and removal of Nixon in the 1970s on a bipartisan basis encouraged Democrats to be less partisan in the 1980s and not launch partisan impeachment proceedings against Presidents Reagan and Bush for violating the War Powers Act in the Iran-Contra affair.

Republicans hoped that Democrats in 1998-99 would choose bipartisanship and vote for Clinton’s removal for perjury about sexual misconduct just as some of them had supported Nixon’s removal in the 1970s. But Democrats disappointed. While many Dems were disgusted by Clinton’s reckless and foolish behavior, they did not believe lying about sex rose to “high crimes and misdemeanors.”

The difference between Democrats in 1998 and Republicans in 2019 is that Dems condemned Clinton’s behavior and he was apologetic and remorseful, whereas Republicans have argued Trump did nothing wrong and he is not remorseful whatsoever.

Conservative columnist Gary Abernathy pointed out in The Washington Post that it took Republicans some time, from the 1972 Watergate break-in to the release of the “smoking gun” tapes revealing that Nixon directed the cover-up in July 1974, to change their minds and stop defending Nixon. Abernathy wrongly stated that Republicans defended Nixon a few months; it was actually two years. But he is correct that it took “Clinton’s party two decades and the #MeToo movement to concede that what Clinton did was serious after all — not the lying part, but what he lied about.”

Marc Fisher in The Washington Post recalled:  “In Clinton’s case, the president’s popular support only briefly dipped below 60 percent and actually grew substantially as the impeachment process moved along in the fall of 1998. The more the public learned about the case against the president, the stronger his support became, peaking that November with 71 percent of Americans saying he should not be impeached, according to a Post-ABC News poll.

“The Clinton impeachment was hideously and increasingly unpopular,” said Frank Bowman, a historian of impeachment who teaches at the University of Missouri Law School. “It was pretty plainly a Republican suicide mission from the beginning. Any man with any sense of personal honor would have quit, but Clinton and his folks managed to change the public narrative from his bad behavior to the behavior of those who attacked him.”

All three presidents, Fisher noted — Nixon, Clinton, and Trump — “began with rote denials and protestations about witch hunts.”

Democrats felt Clinton was entrapped by a hyper-partisan prosecutor, Kenneth Starr. Backed by public opinion — well over 50 percent of the American people approved of Clinton’s performance as president during the impeachment saga — Democrats stuck with their president. Clinton showed unqualified public contrition, admitted that he misled people, and asked for forgiveness.

Democrats then triumphed in the 1998 midterm elections, and won the popular vote in the 2000 election (Al Gore against George W. Bush). Clinton’s irresponsibility in having an affair with an intern and lying about it under oath no doubt cost the Democrats the presidency in 2000. With the economy still strong, Gore should have won handily over Bush, especially if the master campaigner, Bill Clinton, was at his side, unmarred by scandal. Instead, Gore distanced himself from Clinton, choosing the moralistic Joe Lieberman as his running mate, who had called for Clinton’s censure.

The lesson Republicans learned from the Clinton impeachment they carry with them into the Trump “era”: Follow the Democrats’ example. Stick with your party’s president, no matter what. Man the war room and your battle stations. “We will all triumph together or we will all sink together.” Accuse the special prosecutor of hyper-partisanship, no matter the evidence.

But one difference between Clinton and Trump is that Clinton was in his second term and Trump was in his first term. If the Clinton sex scandal had broken into the news in his first term, in 1995 when it occurred, chances are Democrats would have forced him to resign and would have nominated Al Gore in 1996, and Gore would almost certainly have beaten Republican nominee Bob Dole, and quite possibly won re-election in a strong economy in 2000, meaning he would have a chance to thwart 9/11 and the war in Iraq. But of course he would have gotten no credit for either “success.” 

Clinton was charged by the Republican House with perjury and obstruction of justice.

Trump was charged by the Democratic House with abuse of power in inviting the interference of foreign governments in US elections, and obstructing congressional investigations by refusing to release requested documents and instructing members of the executive branch to defy subpoenas.

Democrats were trying to limit impeachment to the charges that would garner the most votes. Trump could have also been charged with additional counts, according to Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington:

  • conspiracy to defraud campaign finance and ethics law; lying on his public financial disclosure forms;
  • acceptance of foreign and domestic emoluments;
  • bribery;
  • tax fraud, if Trump’s tax returns are revealed.

The Trump impeachment saga and the subsequent election in which he was defeated, may define American politics for years.

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