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Democrats Haven’t Learned Anything From Past Impeachment Probes


The history of impeachment proceedings in the modern era, from Nixon to Clinton to Trump, shows that a successful impeachment needs three things: it must be bipartisan, it must be about something Americans think is important, and Congress must strike while the iron is hot. In Trump’s case, Democrats have botched all three.

First, this impeachment inquiry is an entirely partisan affair. The public hearings of recent weeks have made this undeniable, but even before the hearings it was obvious that Democrats alone were going to conduct this impeachment. The House’s impeachment inquiry resolution passed last month without a single Republican vote, and in fact two Democrats joined GOP lawmakers in voting against the resolution, making opposition to the impeachment probe bipartisan.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi tried to avoid this, which is one reason she refused to call for an open House vote on whether to open an impeachment inquiry and instead announced the “inquiry” in a press conference. She knew any House vote would be entirely along partisan lines, undermining the inquiry’s credibility from the outset. By the time Democrats brought forward their impeachment rules resolution at the end of October, Pelosi had lost control of the process.

Second, Democrats have failed to make their case against Trump compelling because they’ve turned it into a process story tailored for the media, not the American people. Cable news and mainstream outlets feed off the drip-drip-drip of lengthy impeachment hearings and hours of tedious testimony, but the public is decidedly less interested.

In fact, impeachment is having the opposite effect Democrats hoped it would, according to a series of recent polls that show support for impeachment has been dropping since the public hearings began. An Emerson poll showed impeachment support has dipped since October, from 48 to 43 percent, while opposition has increased slightly, from 44 to 45 percent.

Other polls have shown a similar trend. The longer the impeachment probe drags on, the less important Americans seem to think it is. This is true of both Republicans and, crucially, Independents. Vanity Fair reported last week that, “By massive margins, Independents say that the impeachment issue is ‘more important to politicians than it is to me’ (62% to 22%) and ‘more important to the media than it is to me’ (61% to 23%).”

Third, House Democrats have missed their window for a politically advantageous impeachment vote. If they were going to do it, they should have done it as soon as Trump released the transcript of his July 25 call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky back in September. Pelosi should have instructed House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerry Nadler to ram through articles of impeachment and then immediately hold an impeachment vote.

Sure, it would have been entirely along party lines, but that’s how it’s going to turn out anyway. The only difference now is that the Senate will likely be conducting an impeachment trial during the runup to the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary. Every leading Democratic candidate except Joe Biden and Pete Buttigieg will be in Washington, not on the campaign trail. The timing of all this couldn’t be worse for Democrats.

A Brief History of Modern Impeachments

In contrast to the kangaroo court being overseen by House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff, past impeachment probes have been bipartisan, tied to a straightforward offense, and timely.

President Nixon of course was never impeached, but the vote to launch an impeachment inquiry passed in the House on a vote of 410 to 4. Although Nixon’s White House, like Trump’s, would denounce the inquiry as a “partisan witch hunt,” it was in fact bipartisan. The three articles of impeachment eventually approved by the House Judiciary Committee in June 1974 were obstruction of justice, abuse of power, and contempt of Congress. All three passed with the support of both Democrats and Republicans.

Before the House could vote on those articles of impeachment, Nixon’s fate was sealed with the release of the “smoking gun” tape on August 5. Recorded just days after the Watergate break-in in June 1972, the tape exposed the initial stages of the coverup and proved that Nixon had been aware of it from the beginning. The revelation that Nixon had been lying, even to his own lawyers, for two years caused his support in Congress to evaporate almost overnight.

Two days after the tape was released, Senate and House GOP leaders met with Nixon in the Oval Office and told him that he was most certainly facing impeachment and removal from office, and that the votes for impeachment would be overwhelmingly bipartisan. In the Senate, only 15 senators were willing to vote for acquittal.

Why? Because Nixon’s wrongdoing was so straightforward and undeniable that even his own party couldn’t support him. Once it became clear that Nixon had been lying about the cover-up, Republicans leaders in Congress moved quickly. Nixon resigned the day after they met with him.

In President Clinton’s case, the vote to commence impeachment hearings was held about a month before the 1998 midterm elections. House Speaker Newt Gingrich believed the Lewinsky scandal would help Republicans, but in fact Democrats picked up five seats in the midterms, and although the GOP retained its majority, Gingrich resigned from Congress in January 1999.

Impeachment hearings in the House Judiciary Committee were perfunctory, but the floor debate was raucous. In the end, the House voted on four articles of impeachment, two of which passed on a bipartisan basis in December 1998 during Congress’s post-election lame duck session. Five Democrats joined 223 Republicans in voting for a charge of perjury, and five Democrats joined 216 Republicans in voting for a charge of obstruction of justice. A second perjury charge and an abuse of power charge failed.

The articles of impeachment were easy to understand. The perjury charge stemmed from Clinton lying to a grand jury about his relationship with Monica Lewinsky, making false statements during a deposition, and attempting to tamper with witnesses. The obstruction of justice charge was for encouraging Lewinsky to lie on her affidavit and give false testimony, concealing gifts he’d given her, and trying to get her a job to influence her testimony, among other things.

The Senate trial lasted a little more than a month, from January 7 to February 9, and in the end no Democrat voted to convict on either charge and Clinton was acquitted. Clinton’s impeachment was therefore not just a failure but also a serious political miscalculation. A majority of Americans never supported impeachment or conviction, polls at the time showed, and in fact Clinton’s job approval rating increased during the impeachment.

But unlike the Trump impeachment inquiry now underway, Clinton’s impeachment was bipartisan and the charges against him were easy to understand. However, Republicans at the time made a huge mistake in their timing—just as Democrats today are doing with Trump.

Timing isn’t the only mistake Democrats are making. Unlike the impeachment probes of Nixon and Clinton, this one is neither bipartisan, intelligible, nor the least bit credible.