Impeachment Horror

Impeachment Horror

I recently finished reading Jeff Toobin’s A Vast Conspiracy, an epic 448-page chronicle of the Monica Lewinsky scandal, from its earliest beginnings as an obscure sexual harassment lawsuit in Arkansas to the second-ever impeachment of an American president. My interest was sparked by Monica’s recent and very thoughtful essay in Vanity Fair, which brought her decades-old story back into public conversation. The tale’s only become more timely since, now that talk of presidential impeachment (spurious or not) has reentered the headlines.

It seems the minute a president enters his second term partisan foes begin to chatter about whether he’s impeach-worthy. It’s a sentiment born partially from frustrated resentment (no one likes to lose twice to the same guy), partially from opportunism (the Congressional opposition almost always gains seats during a president’s first term), and partially from the White House itself, for whom rallying against an “impeachment obsessed” opposition can be of great material benefit.

So present rumblings over the possible impeachment of President Obama will probably only get louder in coming months. What lessons can today’s giddy Republicans learn from their predecessors’ failure?

First: have a clear-cut, impeachable offense.

It was never entirely clear why Clinton was being impeached, which allowed accusations it was “all about politics” or “all about sex” to fill the ambiguity.

Republicans furiously believed the Clinton White House was hopelessly corrupt, and Clinton himself embarrassing and immoral, yet they ultimately chose to impeach him for two incredibly narrow, legal offenses: lying to a grand jury about his affair with Monica during his deposition in the Paula Jones harassment suit, and obstructing justice by conspiring with Monica in various ways to ensure her corroborating silence.

Constitutional scholars generally agree that presidents can be impeached for just about anything, with the constitution’s vague criteria of “high crimes and misdemeanors” defined through centuries of English precedent to mean, in the famously glib words of Gerald Ford, “whatever a majority of the House of Representatives considers it to be.” Yet Toobin argues the 1990s heralded an era in which the judicial system “took over the political system” and it became received wisdom that political battles should be fought through lawsuits and litigation rather than traditional constitutional mechanisms. Republicans thus decided to impeach Clinton on the grounds he was a petty criminal, as opposed to simply unfit for office.

Second: have the numbers.

In contrast to the impeachment of Richard Nixon, which enjoyed some semblance of bipartisan support, every Congressional vote in the long slog to remove Bill Clinton was almost perfectly party-line.

This rank partisanship doomed Clinton’s impeachment from the get-go. Since the final vote in the process — the one that actually expels the president from office — requires a two-thirds majority in the Senate, even the GOP’s healthy majority in both chambers was not sufficient. Some Democrats had to get on board, but because Clinton’s impeachment was perceived as a hysterically ideological Republican plot (a “vast conspiracy,” if you will), none ever did. This was a direct byproduct of problem number one; because the formal argument for impeachment was confused and weak, it remained powerfully unpersuasive to the other side.

Third: have public support.

Perhaps the most famous factoid of the Clinton impeachment is that the President’s approval numbers actually went up during it. Such sympathy appears even more justified in retrospect; the “peace and prosperity” of the 90s remains enviable, and Clinton’s competence as a administrator, whatever his faults as a man, contrasts sharply with his successors.

Had the Republicans upheld the Founders’ intent, and sought to remove Clinton on the subjective, but entirely legitimate grounds that he was too crooked, unethical, and undignified to be president — as embodied not just by the Monica affair, but Whitewater, Travelgate, the Lincoln Bedroom and whatever else — it’s possible their crusade would have seemed a tad more reasonable. But it would have still failed anyway, simply because the American public did not share this conclusion, and Congress knew it.

President Obama is vastly less popular than Clinton, with large percentages believing he’s behaved improperly in a number of high-profile situations. Yet support for impeaching him sits at a dismal 33%, with estimates suggesting backers are around 90% Republican. And of course even in their best-case 2015 scenario, no one thinks the GOP will be holding two-thirds of the Senate any time soon.

The lasting legacy of the Clinton impeachment was the delegitimization of impeachment in general, and to the extent the episode was a gigantic waste of time perhaps that’s fair. Yet at its core, impeachment is simply a constitutional device for removing an unacceptable ruler, so it’s hard to argue the democratic interest is well-served by perpetuating this cultural stigma.

Even if the answer is no, it remains a proposition worth occasionally proposing.


  1. Taylor

    Watergate had " some semblance of bipartisan support" after the Saturday Night Massacre , but bordered on 80% of legislators after the tapes were released.

    Agreed 100% with your first criteria: There has to be something big that everything flows from. All the Clinton messes seemed random.

  2. Jake_Ackers

    For impeach there has to be massive corruption or wrong doing. Bosnia was more impeccable than his bj scandal. Obama refusing to deport is like Nixon refusing to enforce desegregation from a LEGAL and political perspective. Obama delaying and refusing to deport gets him votes. Moreover his hand must be forced by the Supreme Court first like with Nixon.

    Unfortunately the only way that border will be enforced is if we catch a high profile terrorist who came through it and did an attack on US soil.

  3. @TheseLongWars

    JJ, you've written about the North American left so much, haven't you forgotten all the fizzing that happened after Hurricane Katrina about impeaching President Bush? There were a lot of heads spinning demanding Bush should be impeached after Nancy Pelosi's democrats took power in 2006 and the sad thing we felt up till the summer of 2007 was that the Democrats should take this opportunity and take down the old Bush regime, Cheney and all. They'ld committed worse crimes than old Clinton had by 2007. The illegal invasion of a country being one such thing.

  4. Devil Child

    "Illegal invasion?" Half the Democratic Legislative branch voted for that war. Impeaching Bush on that would've been a complete farce.

    Not that it matters, since impeachment is a totally meaningless thing in just about every country. If it was at all about guilt or non-guilt in a criminal offense, no one would've voted Clinton not guilty in any other circumstances. He was caught with DNA evidence proving he lied under oath while being sued to cover his ass, and he still was voted not guilty. What does that say about the evidence or offense itself actually mattering?

    A politician has a significantly better chance of being assassinated than of facing even an attempted impeachment.

  5. JonasB

    I think the bar for impeachment has probably been set higher than the process was intended for, but I also don't think Obama has has done anything to warrant impeachment even with a lowered bar. The constitutional dance done with that prisoner exchange? Maybe, but there are too many unknowns on it for me to be definite.

    I'd also like to point out that there is a /very/ big difference between initiating an impeachment and one actually being successful. It's an indictment, not a conviction, which is probably why it's easier vote-wise to carry out than a veto override. In some of your essays you seem to be treating impeachment as if the vote was basically the US's version of a non-confidence motion, which isn't accurate.

  6. J.J. McCullough

    It's true that impeachment is an indictment not a conviction, but the former is the procedural gateway to the latter, and the latter results in removal from office. So I don't think it's necessarily wrong to use "impeachment" as shorthand for "impeachment-and-conviction" like most Americans do these days.

    I don't think impeachment is really that different from a no-confidence vote. It's hard to make a pure analogy because the parliamentary system has somewhat different philosophical principles in terms of the leader's relationship to the legislature, but at heart, both non-confidence voting and impeachment are basically about the legislature's ability to hold the leader accountable for his conduct. I think the procedural difficulty, and thus rarity, of impeachment has made it seem like a much darker, more stigmatizing punishment, while the easiness of non-confidence voting, coupled with its transformation into a exclusively partisan, minority-government thing, makes it easy to dismiss as no big deal. Really, partisan politics warps so much of our ability to accurately analyze the original intent of either procedure.

  7. JonasB

    Fair enough. Admittedly I'm curious to see an impeachment procedure play out, especially what a president would do if one ended up succeeding due to purely partisan reasons.

  8. J.J. McCullough

    If he was audacious enough, he'd probably just run for re-election. That happens in some countries where impeachment is less stigmatized.

  9. Taylor

    Well, another factor as well is what's kept the President safe from many would-be assassins: Even if you do impeach, the VP just takes over. Note that Agnew had to go before things got most of their steam in Watergate.

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