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.