Did We Learn the Wrong Lesson From the Clinton Impeachment?

Conventional wisdom suggests failing to convict and remove a president risks political disaster. What if it doesn’t?
April 30, 2019
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The Clintons. (Photo by John Edwards)

Debate in Washington swirls around whether the House of Representatives should start the impeachment process against Donald Trump. Some politicians and pundits remain unsure if the material in the redacted Mueller report meets the constitutional standard of high crimes and misdemeanors; others question whether going through this process would do more harm than good to the political order.

But one argument against going down this path is a purely political one: Voters will punish the Democrats if they seek to remove Donald Trump but fall short, thus making a second Trump term much more likely. This rests, largely, upon a belief that by failing to secure Bill Clinton’s conviction and removal by the Senate after impeaching him in December 1998, Republicans hurt themselves badly.

That belief, it turns out, is overblown—which should make Democrats think twice before relying on it to stonewall calls for impeachment.

Consider, first, the 2000 congressional elections. The president’s popularity remained high, Republicans had taken a beating in the press over the “failed” impeachment, and surely the American people would slap the GOP down for its overzealous impeachment effort, right?

Not so much. True, Democrats did grab four additional seats in the Senate. But the Republicans lost only one seat in the House, the body that had impeached Clinton. Among the twelve impeachment managers–the members tasked with taking the impeachment articles to the Senate and arguing for the president’s conviction–only James Rogan (R-California) lost his House re-election bid.

The damage to Republicans could have emerged elsewhere. But it didn’t. George W. Bush beat Clinton’s own vice president for the White House in 2000 and won re-election four years later. Republicans in 2002 picked up more House seats than they’d lost in 1998 and 2000. Most of the managers from the 1998 impeachment remained in the House; Lindsey Graham won election to the Senate.

That’s far less of a smackdown than conventional wisdom would have us believe.

So why this persistent myth that an impeachment effort failing to produce a conviction in the Senate would be so devastating to the party bringing it?

Part of it comes from what the media emphasized at the time. We think that the Clinton acquittal crushed Republicans because cable news, the printed press, and emerging online commentary overwhelmingly played it that way, focusing on Clinton’s high popularity. Most of us are naturally better at remembering soundbites and impressions than the relative number of House seats 20 years ago.

Part of it also derives from the fact that we have never removed a president through impeachment in the House and conviction in the Senate, which makes it seem to many like trying it and failing should have a downside.

And in his specific case, Democrats are confident that Trump is beatable in 2020. Why risk even the possibility of an electoral backlash for a Senate acquittal, when the better bet appears to be removing a vulnerable, unpopular president through a vigorous 2020 campaign? (The 2016 election should make any Democrat wary of taking that bet.)

Finally, conviction in the Senate—though it looks unlikely—can’t be ruled out. Yes, there is the small matter of the composition of the Senate. Even if the House were to pass impeachment articles, the upper chamber is solidly in Republican control—and no sign has yet emerged that GOP senators would vote to convict the president if a trial took place today. Polls show that Americans aren’t clamoring for impeachment and removal, putting little pressure on senators to change their minds.

But political actors make their own reality. Think about Barack Obama in 2008: A first-term senator just four years removed from the Illinois Senate not only defeated Hillary Clinton in the Democratic primaries but won the presidency. Think about Pete Buttigieg now: A 37 year old mayor of the fourth largest city in Indiana has surged into the top tier of a crowded Democratic field. Think, of course, about Trump himself. Political reality is made by action, not by saying what can’t be done.

Public hearings are powerful tools to move public opinion. The majority of Americans haven’t read the nearly 500-page redacted Mueller report and haven’t seen the bulk of the revelations within it. Putting people in televised hearings to answer questions about what happened could create iconic moments, such as those that emerged during Watergate.

It’s worth remembering that those hearings, which started under an overwhelming consensus that the Senate would never convict Richard Nixon, led to the president’s resignation. He only handed power to Gerald Ford because he saw the sword of impeachment and removal hanging over him.

The impeachment process ultimately worked; it got rid of a man who had proven himself unfit for the presidency. And, by the way, Republicans then held the White House for 14 of the next 18 years.

Editor’s Note: This article has been edited to correct errors regarding the timeline of Bill Clinton’s impeachment. 

David Priess

David Priess, chief operating officer of the Lawfare Institute served during the Bill Clinton and George W. Bush administrations as a CIA officer and daily intelligence briefer, and as a State Department desk officer. His new book is How To Get Rid of a President: History’s Guide to Removing Unpopular, Unable, or Unfit Chief Executives.