0629 GMT October 14, 2019
The impeachment of Bill Clinton backfired on Republicans.
It’s a sentiment repeated daily without question on cable news, in Congress and probably inside the White House.
But exactly how did impeachment backfire? With two decades of hindsight, it’s not clear the Republicans faced any lasting consequences — a perspective that should inform any Democrat considering whether to undertake the same effort against President Trump.
The case for why impeachment hurt the Republicans is straightforward. Most obviously, it didn’t work: President Clinton was not convicted and removed from office. In fact, in early 1999, at the height of the impeachment process, he was more popular than at any other time of his presidency.
Furthermore, in the fall of 1998, at the first opportunity for voters to express their feelings at the ballot box after the House voted to begin an impeachment inquiry, the Democrats picked up five seats in the House of Representatives, an embarrassment that drove Newt Gingrich from the speaker’s office.
But consider what followed.
First, the Republicans went on to take or hold the White House in three of the next five presidential elections — including the 2016 race between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton.
And while Democrats did gain a handful of House seats in midterm elections in 1998, the Republicans maintained control for eight more years, until disapproval of the Iraq war finally tipped Congress to the Democrats in 2006.
On the Senate side in 1998, the Republicans maintained their 55-45 majority. With the exception of a 17-month window in 2002 and 2003, Republicans controlled the Senate until 2006. In short, the Republican wave of 1994 endured for nearly a decade after the failed impeachment.
It’s true that Mr. Clinton was not removed from office, but Republicans used the fact of his impeachment as a cudgel first against his vice president, Al Gore, and later against his wife. While its impact can’t be quantified, it sure didn’t help either in their election bids.
Finally, and most important, the very myth that the 1998 impeachment hurt Republicans protects them today, when pressure to move against Mr. Trump is met with concerns about the political fallout. Clearly, we need to reconsider that myth.
Basically, a high crime committed by a Republican won’t be prosecuted because a Democrat was persecuted over a misdemeanor.
There are many reasons for Democrats to contemplate impeachment today that go beyond politics. Substantial evidence has already emerged showing that the president has abused his office to the detriment of the American public. That evidence deserves a thorough and transparent airing in Congress, arguably the only venue available for trying a sitting president.
Still, as pundits never tire of saying, impeachment is a political process, not a legal one — and the House speaker, Nancy Pelosi, and Senator Chuck Schumer are right to wonder whether it makes sense to seek impeachment, especially given the unlikelihood of enough Republicans breaking ranks in the Senate. On Monday, Ms. Pelosi said that, for now, Mr. Trump was “not worth” the cost of impeachment to the country.
But impeachment is worth it, politically, and not just because of what history shows us. If anything, Democrats are in an even better position than Republicans were in 1998 to benefit, or at worst not suffer, politically.
For one thing, 22 Republican senators are up for reelection in 2020, against just 12 Democrats. Especially if the public support for impeachment continues to grow, a Republican vote to acquit the president could tip at least a few vulnerable Republican seats.
Also, one reason people think the Republicans suffered for 1998 is that everyone knew, then and later, that it was a crassly political move — Mr. Clinton’s lapses, however you judge them, were personal, not the sort of “high crimes and misdemeanors” that impeachment is intended to address.
Most voters today, whether they support Mr. Trump or not, will probably see a potential impeachment against him differently. Especially as the evidence mounts, reasonable people will more and more conclude that the Democrats are doing their civic duty by pursuing impeachment (and those who disagree probably wouldn’t vote Democratic anyway).
There is also a mounting political cost to not impeaching Mr. Trump. He will hail it as exoneration and he will go into the 2020 campaign under the banner “I Told You So,” declaring that for all their talk of removing him from office, Democrats had merely been playing politics for three years.
All this assumes that impeachment won’t happen. But the political case is so strong, and the evidence against Mr. Trump so persuasive, that however unlikely, it is not impossible that 20 Republican senators join the Democrats.
But perhaps the most persuasive political case for impeachment is the long view. Set aside what it would mean for the 2020 elections. Mr. Trump is a pernicious, divisive figure who is poisoning our politics, and hopes to do so for years to come. Should he lose in 2020, he has already laid the groundwork for an all-out assault against the media, the political establishment and the Democratic Party itself.
Politically, we — the country, not just the Democratic Party — cannot accept that risk. Impeachment might be the only remedy we have.
* Philippe Reines was a senior adviser and spokesman for Hillary Clinton from 2002 to 2017.
The opinion was first published in The New York Times.