Democratic leaders clearly don’t want to impeach President Trump. And the reasons for their apprehension are clear: Impeachment is an arduous, brutal process, and we’ve seen how it can backfire on the impeaching party. What’s more, Democrats would perhaps be better served focusing on the issues Real People care about. As any reporter on the campaign trail will tell you, after all, these Real People aren’t really asking the 2020 presidential hopefuls about Robert S. Mueller III or impeachment.
Fair enough. But what if it’s not an either/or proposition? And what if the lessons of Bill Clinton’s impeachment just don’t apply to today? Democratic leaders talk about impeachment as if it’s something that would consume and define the 2020 presidential campaign. But if history is any indication, it could actually be well in the rearview mirror by then.
The worries about an all-consuming, long impeachment process came from a perhaps unlikely source Monday night: Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.).
“If, for the next year, year and a half, going right into the heart of the election, all that the Congress is talking about is impeaching Trump and Trump, Trump, Trump, and Mueller, Mueller, Mueller, and we’re not talking about health care, we’re not talking about raising the minimum wage to a living wage,” Sanders said, before concluding: “What I worry about is that works to Trump’s advantage.”
Also Monday, House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.) seemed to reveal Democrats’ true strategy: delay. “Very frankly, there is an election in 18 months, and the American people will make a judgment,” he said.
This argument is kind of a non sequitur, though. The limited history of impeachments suggests that this is something that could be dealt with and wrapped up in four months or less — well before any Democratic primary votes are cast and even before most of the primary debates. In some ways, if Democrats want to move past impeachment and focus on other things, one of the best ways might be to just get on with it.
The first president to be impeached was Andrew Johnson. After a dispute about his powers to remove and appoint Cabinet officials, the House voted to impeach him Feb. 24, 1868. The process went like this:
- Feb. 24: Impeached by House
- March 5: Senate impeachment court is convened
- March 30: Impeachment trial begins
- May 16: First vote to remove Johnson from office falls one vote shy of necessary two-thirds majority
- May 26: Second and third votes fail by the same margin
That’s three months and two days between impeachment and the trial’s conclusion.
The timeline for Clinton’s 1998-1999 impeachment was somewhat similar:
- Oct. 5: House Judiciary Committee votes to open impeachment inquiry
- Oct. 8: House votes to begin impeachment proceedings
- Dec. 11-12: Judiciary Committee votes to approve four articles of impeachment
- Dec. 19: House votes to approve two of the four articles, officially impeaching Clinton
- Jan. 7: Senate impeachment trial begins
- Feb. 12: Clinton is acquitted on both articles, the more successful of which split the Senate 50-50
From the first official impeachment-related action to the end of the trial, that’s four months and one week. If you only cover the period between actual impeachment and acquittal, it’s less than two months. And all of this was done at a time when the United States was bombing Iraq, holding an election and swearing in new members (not to mention the House going through a leadership crisis). These events also spanned multiple stops and starts for negotiations, as well as the Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s holidays.
Every situation is different, and we have a limited sample size of impeachments to compare the current situation to. Perhaps Democrats would want to gather more evidence before their impeachment vote, given the GOP controls the Senate, for instance. But history suggests this is something that, if started relatively soon, would be finished well before the 2020 campaign truly got off the ground.
It’s also not clear that it would come to define the 2020 race in a negative way for them. A big reason the Clinton impeachment hurt the GOP was that the process began during the stretch run of the campaign. Clinton wound up having a good midterm election — a rarity for a sitting president — but who’s to say whether that momentum would have held up if the impeachment proceedings had wrapped up in mid-1997 rather than launching in late 1998. And remember: Twenty-one months after Clinton’s impeachment trial concluded, his vice president lost the presidency for his party.
The point is less that we can predict how this might pan out and more that the reluctance to impeach is based on a number of speculative fears and in some cases questionable assumptions about how the process might linger into next year. We’ve seen two impeachments happening at highly unusual times. This would be another one, certainly, but it would be unusual in a different way.