Lessons from Impeachments Past – “Sunday Political Brunch” -- September 29, 2019

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CHARLESTON, W. Va. – I’m not here to advocate for, or, against impeachment. That’s for my readers and partisan politicians to decide. But we’ve been down this road only three other times in our history, and I was alive for two of them - and was deeply invested in both. I was in grade school and high school, riveted to President Nixon’s plight in the 70s. And then I was a White House reporter in Washington, D.C, during the Clinton years, so I have some perspective to share. Let’s “brunch” on that this week:

“Do the Math, (and Show Your Work!)” – Remember that impeachment is a political proceeding, not a legal one. Because of that partisanship is important, whether you like it or not. The House currently has 235 Democrats with 198 Republicans. There is one independent and one vacancy. Clearly Democrats have the numbers to file and pass articles of impeachment. I believe they will do so.

“Impeachment Two-Step” – Because it happens so infrequently, there is a common misperception that if you impeach a president, he is out. Not so. The House votes to impeach, but the Senate must hold a trial and then vote on removing from office. It’s not a simple majority decision as you need a two-thirds vote of the Senate to expel. The current Senate is 53 Republicans and 47 Democrats (two of whom are independents, who caucus with the minority). So, you’d need 20 Republicans to join with the 47 minority party members to remove Trump from office. That’s a tough road to hoe.

“The Bill Clinton Math” – In 1998, the House passed two articles of impeachment against President Clinton (even though the Judiciary Committee had approved four). Still, Republicans were the majority party in both chambers and the process moved to the Senate. The GOP held a 55 to 45 majority in the U.S. Senate, but with a two-thirds vote needed to remove Clinton from office, they’d need 12 Democrats to join them. The Democratic caucus did not waver. All 45 Democrats rejected removal from office on both counts, and on one charge five Republicans joined them. Clinton was easily saved, and for now Trump is on a similar glide path.

“Proceed at Your Own Peril” – The country was very divided in 1998 as the impeachment of Bill Clinton moved forward. While many Democrats joined with Republicans in condemning Clinton’s personal indiscretions, many in both parties felt removal from office (and undoing an election) were too extreme. Many voters felt the same way. In the November 1998 midterm elections, Republicans lost five seats in the House and the caucus made it clear it was overthrowing Newt Gingrich as House Speaker and he stepped down. While the GOP Senate majority stayed the same, the public message from voters was hard to ignore. People thought Congress had far more important business to attend to.

“The Nixon Dilemma” – We will never know for certain the fate of President Nixon, since he resigned before impeachment could move forward. But support for his impeachment was bipartisan. Seven Republicans joined with the majority party Democrats in voting to impeach Nixon. On August 7, 1974 Senators Barry Goldwater (R) Arizona and Minority Leader Hugh Scott (R) Iowa and House Minority Leader John Rhodes (R) Ohio went to the White House to tell Nixon his own party was turning on him and he would not prevail. The lesson here is watching the president’s own party. If it abandons him, the party’s over!

“Timing Matters” – The thing that the Nixon, Clinton, and Trump impeachment inquiries have in common is that they all hit their stride in an election year. In 1998 when I was a reporter in Washington, D.C., many Democrats who supported Clinton publicly told me privately, “I’ve got to defend this?” They were mad because they were painted into the corner of defending Clinton, even though many voters in their home districts were furious about Clinton’s behavior. While they were on the ballot in 1998, Clinton was not. The same was true for Nixon in 1974, when Republicans lost a ton of House seats. No matter your party, you don’t want the president’s anchor of scandal tied around your neck.

“Looking Forward” – Democrats hold such a large majority in the House of Representatives, they are unlikely to lose their grip on power. But Republicans would like to make some gains back from the 2018 midterm losses. In the Senate, Democrats have a shot at regaining the majority, because Republicans are defending almost twice as many seats. The big problem for Republicans is not the removal of Trump from office (for now unlikely), but rather losing their majority in the Senate and losing even more seats in the House. A lot of Republican lawmakers – fearing their own fate – could cut and run from Trump as many did for Nixon in 1974.

“The Bottom Line” – Don’t watch what the Democrats do in the impeachment process. They will hold their hearings and cast their votes against Trump in a very partisan fashion, and that’s their prerogative. But the real show will be to watch what the Republican rank and file do as a matter of conscience or political self-preservation.

Do you favor or support impeachment? And why? Just click the comment button!

Mark Curtis, Ed.D., is Chief Political Reporter for the five Nexstar Media TV stations serving West Virginia and its five neighboring states and most of the Washington, D.C. media market. He is a National Contributing Political Writer for “The White House Patch” at www.Patch.com.

© 2019 Mark Curtis Media, LLC

Photo courtesy: Getty Images

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