Citing their experience in the 1990s, Republicans warned Democrats this week that an impeachment inquiry into President Donald Trump's dealings with Ukraine would backfire politically.
History, however, doesn't back up that assertion.
Only three U.S. presidents have ever faced a serious threat of removal by Congress – Andrew Johnson, Richard Nixon and Bill Clinton -- and in each case the party that initiated the inquiry ended up benefiting in the next election.
"The idea that Democrats are going to have a political loss from this – maybe they will," said Elizabeth Holtzman, a member of the House Judiciary Committee during the Watergate scandal, which led to Nixon's resignation. "But the Nixon impeachment doesn't show that. It shows an amazing victory."
In setting in motion the impeachment inquiry, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi runs the risk of voter backlash in 2020, especially for Democrats who wrested seats from Republicans last November.
Brenda Wineapple, author of "The Impeachers," said that Republicans who impeached but failed to convict Johnson after the Civil War "didn't suffer politically," as they maintained control of Congress and their party's candidate, Ulysses Grant, won the White House in the 1868 elections.
The same was true for the impeachment inquiry that led to Nixon's resignation in 1974, as Democrats substantially increased their majority in Congress and won back the White House two years later.And in 1998, amid the Republican drive to impeach Clinton for lying under oath and obstruction of justice, the GOP retained control of both chambers of Congress, and won the White House two years later.
Nonetheless, the conventional wisdom has long been that the Clinton impeachment effort hurt Republicans because they lost House seats in the 1998 midterm elections.
Former Representative Martin Frost, who led the Democratic House campaign effort in 1998, said that the main problem for House Republicans that year was that they made impeachment their "closing argument."
"They overplayed their hand," he said.
The timing was a key factor. The Republicans voted to start impeachment proceedings on Oct. 8, 1998, just weeks before the midterms. In late October, Republican Speaker Newt Gingrich engineered a TV advertising blitz in key House districts focusing on Clinton's relationship with Monica Lewinsky.
Republicans thought the effort would bolster their House majority. When they instead lost five seats, Gingrich resigned. The Senate then failed to convict Clinton, and he finished his second term with high approval ratings.
For that reason, many Republicans have argued that a Trump impeachment would backfire.
After Pelosi announced her decision on Tuesday, Trump said it would be "a positive for me" and help him win re-election, while the head of the National Republican Congressional Committee argued that it would cost Democrats the House majority. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Kentucky Republican who was in the Senate at the time, argued last year that the Clinton impeachment "improved the president's approval rating and tanked ours."But political scientists say that leaves out the effect on the presidential election two years later. Impeachment and the scandal that brought it about complicated Vice President Al Gore's presidential campaign, leading to a narrow victory by Republican George W. Bush, who pledged to "restore honor and dignity" to the White House.
Christopher Lawrence, a professor of political science at Middle Georgia State University who has studied Clinton's impeachment, said Democrats are also in a much different position now. Polls show Republicans are already highly supportive of Trump and extremely enthusiastic about voting in 2020, so impeachment may not change much among those voters, especially when the election is still 13 months away.
"I don't think at this point there's anything that you can do to motivate Trump supporters more than they already are to vote for him in 2020," he said. "Really, the question is whether it will motivate Democrats to vote."That's not to say every lawmaker involved in impeachment escapes unscathed.
In the 2000 election, Democrats targeted House impeachment manager James Rogan, a California Republican, for defeat, and they later blocked him from a federal judicial nomination. Georgia Democrats redrew impeachment manager Bob Barr's congressional district in a way that led to his loss in a Republican primary.Yet those who have been on the front lines of past impeachments stressed that ultimately, political considerations shouldn't matter.
"It ought to be irrelevant," Barr said. "If a majority of the members of the House believe the president has committed an impeachable offense, then regardless of where the political chips may fall, they have an obligation to proceed."
Bloomberg. Ryan Teague Beckwith, September 26, 2019.
September 26, 2019.
Voices4America Post Script. Are you doing political calculus and worrying about the fallout for 2020? This article may calm you. But the real advantage impeachment gives us is this: Democrats are patriots. We care about Country and Constitution! Republicans care only about party and power. #ImpeachmentNow