I had already voted in the 1996 election by then, but the impeachment of President Bill Clinton just over two years later was one of my first moments of real political consciousness.
Here are a few of the things I remember: Conservatives still raging at Clinton’s re-election and the missed opportunity of 1996; clamoring for their party’s possibly suicidal impeachment push, on grounds that were always pretty flimsy and seemed like a pretext.
In retrospect, the entire impeachment push did little besides create a whole bunch of public sympathy for Clinton and sky-high approval ratings that follow him to this day. It also probably weakened the five GOP senators who voted “guilty” and then went on to lose re-election the following year. (Spence Abraham, Rod Grams, Bill Roth, John Ashcroft, and Slade Gorton.) This led to the 2001 Democratic takeover of the Senate, although it wasn’t enough to help Al Gore.
With the Trump White House already facing investigations and turbulence, there are a lot of comparisons to Richard Nixon floating around. But impeachment attempts don’t always go that way, leading to constitutional crises and ending in a president’s resignation. Sometimes they look more comical, like Clinton’s impeachment, with bitter partisans screaming for the president’s bloody head on the one side and his defenders making every excuse on the other. And sometimes they backfire.
According to the Politico poll released today, 71 percent of Democrats want Trump impeached, and that number is sure to rise in the coming weeks, whether or not any evidence of #TrumpRussia wrongdoing emerges.
Assuming it doesn’t, Democrats could find themselves in the same difficult spot where Republican leaders were in the late 1990s. So far, they’ve generally tried to discourage any talk of this sort. But Trump really has the Left spinning out in rage — and seriously, I thought they were unbearable under Bush, but I had no idea. It won’t be possible for Democratic leaders to quell their base’s growing demand for impeachment forever.
An impeachment is very risky, as Republicans learned two decades ago. Right now, Democrats seem on their way to having a decent 2018 election, and the i-word threatens to scramble that and produce a far less predictable result — perhaps better, but also potentially disastrous. (Maybe it seems impossible that congressional Democrats could accidentally turn Trump into a sympathetic figure, but it also seemed impossible that Trump would ever get elected in the first place.)
Also, think of 2020: The very last thing Sens. Elizabeth Warren, Kirsten Gillibrand or Cory Booker want right now is to start getting tangled up in a premature impeachment proceeding that could ultimately hurt their brand (one way or another) in the 2020 primaries or the general election.
Long story short: Be careful what you wish for when it comes to impeachment.