Lessons In Impeachment

Laura Blessing | June 5, 2019

In politics, we often learn the lesson of the last time. When President Obama came into office, he and his advisors read Gordon Goldstein’s Lessons in Disaster, which covered mistakes made in Vietnam, to apply them to Afghanistan and Iraq.  The enduring legacy of these conflicts is the power vacuum that enabled the rise of ISIS, for which there is no Vietnamese analogy. When Obama considered how to move forward on health care, his advisors considered the reaction to Clinton’s push in the 1990s, where congressional complaints were that the administration tried to dictate a detailed plan to Congress, only to have it fail. The Obama Administration took a much more hands-off approach, which did not attract Republican support, may have resulted in a package further away from the administration’s policy preferences, and risked passage of the ACA after Sen. Ted Kennedy died. Now, under the 45th President, prominent Democrats in office and throughout the country are calling for impeachment proceedings. Yet the lessons from previous times may have limited applicability.

Where Congress stands now

Last Wednesday Robert Mueller ended his formal role as Special Counsel by giving a televised statement and resigning from the Department of Justice. Mueller reiterated the highlights of his report, and stated that “under long-standing Department policy, a President cannot be charged with a federal crime while he is in office” and that “if we had confidence that the President clearly did not commit a crime, we would have said that.” This statement has increased calls from House Democrats (as well as Democratic presidential candidates) for impeachment proceedings. These voices now include about 50 House Democrats, about a quarter of the caucus. Majority Whip Clyburn thinks impeachment proceedings will occur, though not immediately, and Judiciary Chair Nadler agrees, noting the difficulty Trump’s blanket opposition to subpoenas has created for the process. Nadler’s coordination with leadership reflects Speaker Pelosi’s control of the process. Pelosi continues to resist calls for impeachment proceedings to begin, preferring to let various congressional committees’ investigations (and the court cases for averted subpoenas) to proceed before taking steps that could be seen as premature, while allowing that impeachment may become warranted.

Previous impeachment lessons

Nixon and Clinton are the most frequently cited comparisons to our current circumstances. With the Watergate hearings, evidence uncovered led to a clear erosion of public support as hearings went on, followed by Nixon’s resignation. In the case of Clinton’s impeachment, the lesson that is often cited is that overreach on the part of House Republicans led to a strong showing for Democrats in the 1998 midterm elections. (Of course, other factors could be emphasized—that Republicans never had the votes in the Senate, that a strong economy played a role bolstering Clinton politically, or that impeachment damaged Al Gore’s willingness to embrace Clinton, contributing to his defeat in 2000.)  This fear of overreach, as well as a Republican Senate almost assured to acquit President Trump, permeates much of Democratic strategic considerations.  Democrats also appear to believe that oversight hearings may erode the President’s support in a politically meaningful way.

What’s different today

The major difference, which is more acute when measured from the 1970s, is the increase in partisan polarization. As such, Trump’s remarkably stable polling likely has a higher floor of core partisan support—despite his historic unpopularity. By contrast, in a less partisan time it was possible to have a greater range of approval and disapproval in polls—Nixon at one point had a 68% approval rating, but sank to a low of 24% upon his resignation.

Members of Congress are more partisan than the public, and there are far fewer moderates in Congress today than the 1970s, which was a low point for partisan polarization. Release of the tapes served as a “smoking gun” moment for various Republican defenders of Nixon to withdraw their support. While hearings still have the ability to erode public support over time, it’s questionable how much effect that may have, given the above polling trends, and questionable what additional information might change attitudes that weren’t swayed by the Mueller report. Besides Justin Amash, there appear to be few Republican members likely to call for impeachment in the House.  It’s hard to imagine getting 20 Republican Senators to call for removal—the necessary amount if the Democratic caucus is unified. Some consider further norm erosion if Majority Leader McConnell declines to take up the impeachment case. Besides considering total votes in both chambers, the Watergate hearings were notable in that they had moderate members in important roles that were seen as honest brokers in the process, like conservative Democrat Sam Ervin, who chaired the Senate Select Committee on Watergate, or liberal or moderate Republicans like Senator Brooke, the first Republican Senator to call for Nixon to resign.

Outside political elites, including the media, are also both weaker and more partisan than they were in the 1970s.  Partisan voters and legislators alike have radically different views of what Mueller uncovered, bolstered by a media that has low levels of public trust and where one can select alternate facts, if one chooses.

Finally, the nature of the potential charges against Trump are different than those against Nixon or Clinton. To be sure, all of these charges are different from each other, “high crimes and misdemeanors” is inherently subjective and politically adjudicated, and critiques of Trump range from the ten episodes of potential obstruction of justice outlined in the Mueller report, to his obstruction of subpoenas, to his rhetoric against the press. And yet, one lesson learned in previous cases was that the cover up was worse than the crime. But there is no reason that this would always continue to be the case, including with the 45th President.

The upshot is that this is gearing up to be a more tribal political fight for the country, which may further erode institutions, norms and political trust.   Given the nature of the charges, Democratic leadership may proceed, whether it is because they believe the charges warrant such action, because they are trying to discourage such behavior in the future, because they believe the President is a threat to the system, or because they hope to diminish his reelection chances—or (likely) some combination of these.

What’s unpredictable

For Clinton, the perception of congressional overreach was paired with a roaring economy and budget surpluses. To date, the economy has been largely positive under the Trump Administration by the metrics analysts usually compare. And yet, there are a number of potential problems on the horizon that could create economic (or other) trouble that could erode support for Trump further.  The federal budget caps need to be raised to avert significant sequestration cuts at the same time that the debt ceiling needs to be raised; default would bring worldwide economic tumult.  The President’s trade wars may bear more problematic fruit.  And the saber-rattling and contradictory statements of administration policy on Iran have foreign governments, scholars, and political observers concerned about an accidental war with Iran.


There is a facile saying that those who do not know their history are doomed to repeat it. Yet if one truly understands historical parallels, one can see the limits of their application.


Laura Blessing is a Senior Fellow at the Government Affairs Institute

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