Friday, April 19, 2019


I'm not prepared to say that impeachment is absolutely necessary for the health and well-being of the Republic -- a resounding defeat of Donald Trump and the GOP at the polls in 2020, followed by multiple indictments of Trump (and his associates and relatives) in multiple venues, would have a similar effect. Impeachment would certainly fail in its main goal -- to remove Trump from office -- because no Republican in Congress would vote against the president, regardless of the evidence.

Nevertheless, I question the standard argument against impeachment, summarized by Greg Sargent as:
It will ultimately fail while simultaneously energizing Trump’s base in 2020. Or Democratic overreach risks alienating swing voters.
The usual standard of comparison is what happened to Republicans after they impeached Bill Clinton -- no party wants to subject itself to that.

But what actually did happen to Republicans after they impeached Bill Clinton?

We know that they were expecting big wins in the 1998 midterms, which came just as the House approached an impeachment vote -- and as everyone knows, they lost seats in Congress instead. But how many seats did they lose? A whopping five, all in the House. (The party makeup of the Senate was unchanged.)

Still, why should Democrats do this even if it's a small risk? I'd argue that we can't judge the risk of impeaching Trump by looking at what happened when Clinton was impeached because Clinton was much more popular than Trump.

When Bill Clinton was impeached by the House, on December 19, 1998, his job approval rating in the CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll was 63%. Disapproval was 33%. And while the investigation and impeachment effort served to make Clinton more popular -- he'd temporarily go up to 73% approval in the subsequent survey, conducted just after the impeachment vote -- it needs to be recalled that Clinton was quite popular before the Monica Lewinsky scandal broke. We first learned about it on January 17, 1998. At that point, Clinton's CNN/USA Today/Gallup numbers were 59% approval, 32% disapproval.

So Republicans didn't pay a price in 1998 because they were on course to impeach a president -- they paid a price because they were on course to impeach a president who was popular.

And they didn't pay much of a price. Remember, they retained control of both houses of Congress in 1998. An even if there's an asterisk in the record book, they won back the presidency in 2000 -- it was their second-best showing in a presidential race in the past thirty years.

Clinton's popularity in 1998 contrasts sharply with that of President Trump, who's never been above 50% in the Real Clear Politics polling average. What's more, the public thinks Trump is a crook, and this includes independent voters:

The public didn't think much of Bill Clinton's sexual morals, but the Lewinsky matter was seen at the time as mere adultery. The public didn't want him removed from office for lying about sex. Much of the public has shrugged off Trump's adultery, too -- but the public seems less willing to ignore Trump's personal and political corruption.

Pursuing impeachment might be a miscalculation for Democrats. But we shouldn't assume it is based on the Clinton precedent.

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