Pelosi’s reluctance to go down this path is clearly a political calculation. She has emphasized that impeachment is a divisive process for the country and said Trump is “just not worth it.” It’s pretty apparent that she and others believe it could blow back on Democrats, especially given that a majority of Americans are opposed to impeachment at this point and it’s highly unlikely to succeed in actually removing Trump from office. And much of the punditry and analysis on this topic seems to agree that there’s more potential downside than upside.
But what if those assumptions are wrong?
Drawing hard and fast conclusions about American politics is often difficult, given the country’s relative youth. We quite simply don’t have that many elections with which to analyze the effectiveness of various political strategies. And that’s especially the case with impeachment, which has been undertaken only twice in American history. What’s more, these assumptions about impeachment are largely based upon a sample size of one: Bill Clinton’s impeachment in the late 1990s.
There are clear analogues between Clinton’s situation and Trump’s. Both men were accused of obstructing justice, with plenty of evidence to back up those accusations. Both had clear problems telling the truth about their actions. Both were facing a House controlled by a relatively newly empowered opposition party. And both benefited from a strong economy, which can tend to paper over other issues.
But the parallels only go so far. As I wrote a while back, the timeline of Clinton’s impeachment seemed to work against Republicans. Having begun impeachment proceedings on the eve of the 1998 election, the initial backlash was instantly able to register at the ballot box and help Democrats score unexpected success in the midterm elections. Republicans then officially impeached Clinton on Dec. 19, 1998, and Clinton’s approval rating hit its highest mark ever — 73 percent — in a Gallup poll that was conducted starting that day.
But that timeline is not today’s timeline. Today, there is actually time for the impeachment proceedings to register with the American people. The process can take as little as a few months, meaning Democrats need not even let it linger into the 2020 calendar year.
And witness what happened to Clinton and his party as time moved on. While that 73 percent approval rating was his highest ever, it was really just a blip on the screen. Clinton’s approval had hovered in the 60s before impeachment began, and after it was completed, he spent the remainder of his presidency in the high 50s and low 60s.
Then his party lost the presidential election in 2000. So, however bad a blunder impeachment supposedly was, it didn’t prevent the GOP from winning back the presidency two years later, which is actually a more similar timeline to the one we have today.
Clinton’s popularity is another key point here. He was popular before and after impeachment, which meant people were more willing to give him the benefit of the doubt. Trump isn’t and has never been popular. Polling also shows a large majority of Americans are receptive to the idea that he has committed crimes.
There’s also the nature of the conduct involved. While Clinton was accused by independent counsel Kenneth Starr of obstruction, his alleged obstruction pertained to a highly, well, personal matter — and one that most Americans regarded as such. Trump’s alleged obstruction, meanwhile, pertains to how he has carried out his duties as president.
The Clinton scandal was relatively simple. He engaged in an affair, lied about it and covered it up. Trump’s actions, by contrast, are more complex and difficult to digest and put in the correct legal context. There is an argument to be made that impeachment proceedings could shine a spotlight on his actions and make them register with the American people — the vast, vast majority of whom have not and never will read the Mueller report.
The argument against all of this is that Trump is already a wounded president, but one with a strong base. Impeachment proceedings could inflame and motivate that base. Polls show 54 to 56 percent of registered voters say they won’t support Trump in the 2020 election. So if you’re a Democrat, why mess with those fundamentals and potentially make Trump look more like the victim of a “witch hunt” he has long claimed to be? Polls also show Americans prefer Democrats to simply investigating Trump. Why not just proceed as-is and hope that you continue to have what appears to be a good shot at unseating him?
There are compelling arguments both for doing it and not doing it, but the argument that this would hurt Democrats — or even just that it would be more likely to harm than help — is based on plenty of guesswork. Nobody should over-extrapolate the lessons of 1998-99 onto 2019.
And of course, whatever clear-eyed strategy calculations Pelosi and Co. might be making could soon be out the window, as their own conference becomes more adamant about the moral imperative to impeach.