In the latest sign of red-vs.-blue politics, Thursday’s vote to formalize the already-rolling impeachment inquiry revealed just how much politics has changed in a couple of decades. Process is politics now, and simple procedural votes — to begin to consider doing something, not actually doing that thing — are considered weapons of political mass destruction.
Not a single Republican crossed the aisle to vote to set up the procedures for considering impeachment, while just two Democrats, who come from districts strongly supporting Trump, voted against the impeachment inquiry.
Back in October 1998, after receiving an independent counsel report on Clinton’s efforts to cover up an affair, 31 Democrats joined all Republicans in setting up a formal process for considering impeachment.
Kind sees that as a testament to just how dogmatic Republicans have become in their sense of loyalty to all things Trump, living in fear of betraying him and then getting punished by his supporters in a primary.
“Yeah, the political environment has changed a little bit, hasn’t it? I mean, we really are getting close to this Fifth Avenue challenge, aren’t we? It doesn’t matter what the president may do, including kill someone,” Kind said in an interview before the vote, referring to Trump’s campaign boast that he wouldn’t lose support even if he shot someone in the middle of the Manhattan street. “Many of his supporters won’t abandon him, for any reason, under any set of circumstances, and that’s problematic.”
Republicans counter that the other side has its own ideological rigidity. Some liberal activists were demanding Trump’s impeachment early this year before the special counsel investigation into his 2016 campaign had been completed and before the revelations about the president’s campaign to pressure Ukraine into investigating Trump’s political rivals.
“Look, it’s just a more partisan time. Each party is much more cohesive,” said Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.) , who hails from the establishment GOP wing and led the opposition Thursday to the Democratic resolution.
In 1998, two of Connecticut’s five members of the House were Republicans and three of Arkansas’s four-member delegation were Democrats. Today, both states are ideologically purified, with Connecticut fully Democratic and Arkansas fully Republican.
Each party has been drifting toward the more staunch ideological flanks for a couple of decades, but the Trump era has personalized things based on whether a lawmaker is for him or against him.
Back in 1998, Clinton was dramatically more popular than Trump is today — his job approval rating never fell below 60 percent even as his personal scandals spun out into the open, month after month. Clinton’s highest rating, 73 percent, came the weekend the House approved two articles of impeachment against him, according to the Gallup poll.
Yet Democrats still did not feel entirely loyal to him and worried that the public was ready to punish them. House Republicans brought the resolution to a vote Oct. 8, less than a month before the 1998 midterm elections, and some insiders expected about 50 Democrats to vote for the impeachment inquiry.
Of the 31 Democrats who ultimately supported it, many came from conservative Southern districts, but quite a few seem like surprises in retrospect: Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio), who would go on to run twice for president before retiring in 2012, and Ellen Tauscher (D-Calif.) , who went on to become a close friend of Hillary Clinton and left Congress in 2009 to join her at the State Department.
Partisan lines got stronger when the final impeachment votes happened on Dec. 19, 1998. On the two articles that passed, five Democrats voted to impeach Clinton and up to 12 Republicans voted against impeaching.
Kind did not support any of the four proposed impeachment articles against Clinton.
But even those consequential votes were more bipartisan than this week’s procedural roll call. Not a single Republican broke from Trump, not even one of the 19 who already announced they will not seek reelection next year.
“I don’t care about brushback, you know,” said Rep. Francis Rooney (R-Fla.) , who is retiring next year. He boasted of having “pretty well accomplished” what he needed to in a couple of terms after decades running an investment company in Florida.
Rooney, who has been critical of Trump’s actions, still could not bring himself to vote with Democrats because he thought their resolution did not give Republicans enough input into calling their own witnesses.
But he does not have any real problems with the manner in which Rep. Adam B. Schiff (D-Calif.), chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, has been leading the investigation so far.
“I think it’s been fair. I’ve been in a lot of those hearings, and Chairman Schiff has allowed everybody to ask all the questions they want,” Rooney said.
He, so far, leaves open the option of voting for final articles of impeachment.
Rep. Jeff Van Drew (D-N.J.) , a freshman, said he plans to tell his constituents about his deeply personal introspection before he became just one of two Democrats to oppose impeachment proceedings.
“I literally prayed on it and I’m doing the best that I know how to do, and I think at the end of the day this is going to hurt the country,” Van Drew said, explaining his fear that each party will begin to frequently impeach presidents. “You know who the good impeachers are? The voters.”
Kind thinks far too many of his colleagues view these standoffs with presidents as exercises in procedural flexibility depending on which party holds the White House.
He noted that in 2012, just 17 Democrats voted to hold Eric Holder, then the attorney general, in contempt over his refusal to comply with House subpoenas during an investigation into a failed undercover gunrunning operation. Just two Republicans voted against holding Holder in contempt.
“So I’ve been willing to hold a Democratic attorney general in contempt, I’ve been willing to vote for a Clinton impeachment inquiry,” he said.
And Thursday he voted to formalize impeachment proceedings against Trump. “I’m trying to stay consistent.”
The story has been corrected as there are 55 House members who voted on Thursday for an impeachment resolution who were in Congress in October 1998. The story incorrectly said 56.