1998 ≠ 2019 and Clinton ≠ Trump`

Oh man do I love this article from Ron Brownstein.  Yes, it is possible that impeaching Trump with his acquittal by the Senate could hurt Democrats, but that’s far from the foregone conclusion so many are making it out to be.  You don’t have to be a historian to think that the dramatically different circumstances might matter.  And, perhaps more importantly, Brownstein persuasively argues that the failed impeachment did not ultimately hurt Republicans nearly as much as conventional wisdom suggests that it did:

It’s become conventional wisdom—not only among Democrats but also among many political analysts—that House Republicans paid a severe electoral price for moving against Bill Clinton in 1998, at a time when polls showed most of the public opposed that action.

But that straightforward conclusion oversimplifies impeachment’s effects, according to my analysis of the election results and interviews with key strategists who were working in national politics at the time. While Republicans did lose House seats in both 1998 and 2000, Democrats did not gain enough to capture control of the chamber either time. And in 2000, lingering unease about Clinton’s behavior provided a crucial backdrop for George W. Bush’s winning presidential campaign—particularly his defining promise “to restore honor and dignity” to the Oval Office.

Matthew Dowd, a senior strategist for Bush’s 2000 campaign, told me that Democrats today “are learning the wrong lessons” from Clinton’s impeachment by neglecting to consider how it shaped both election cycles, especially the presidential race. In January 2001, almost exactly two years after House Republicans defied public opinion to impeach Clinton, the GOP controlled the White House, the House, and initially the Senate. (Within months, the Republican Jim Jeffords of Vermont would switch parties, shifting control to the Democrats.) “Having gone through all that,” Dowd said, “I think the Democrats are way too skittish on impeachment.”.

Tad Devine, a senior strategist for Al Gore, the Democratic nominee in 2000, concurs. Bush’s ability to tap the public’s dismay over Clinton’s personal life “more than anything else got in our way in terms of winning the election,” he told me. Even if the Senate doesn’t convict Trump, Devine believes, impeachment in the House could offer Democrats a similar chance to highlight the aspects of Trump’s volatile behavior that most alienate swing voters.

“If impeachment is done properly, then the Democratic nominee will be talking about it [next year] and not be running away from it in the general election,” he said. “I don’t look at it as something that is going to derail a Democratic nominee. Just like we saw in 2000, an impeachment inquiry could very badly damage somebody who is associated with it.”…

But it’s easy to overstate the magnitude of the GOP’s backslide in 1998. In the Senate, Democrats gained no seats that year, leaving the Republican majority intact. Nor did the five-seat House loss cost the GOP its majority in that chamber. Republicans still won more of the total national popular vote in House races than Democrats. Swing voters didn’t stampede away from the GOP; in exit polls, Republicans still narrowly beat Democrats among independent voters. And while impeachment provoked big turnout from African Americans, Clinton’s most passionate supporters, overall, turnout that year was very low…

Both of the impeachment-related dynamics that benefited Bush in 2000 could help Democrats in 2020, Dowd believes. An acquittal in the Republican Senate after the Democratic House votes to impeach Trump would likely spur turnout next year among Democrats determined “to finish the job,” he maintained, just as it did among Republicans 20 years ago. And impeachment hearings could focus attention on personal behavior by the president that dismays swing voters satisfied with the economy—just as the Clinton impeachment effort did. “It will remind people of all the things related to him that they don’t like,” Dowd said…

All of that suggests it’s not a guaranteed political winner for House Democrats to impeach Trump when there’s virtually no chance the Senate will vote to remove him. But the full ledger on Clinton’s impeachment invalidates the common assumption that impeachment without removal is a guaranteed political loser. Considering both the 1998 and 2000 elections, there’s considerable evidence that the struggle actually helped the GOP; at worst, its political impact was equivocal. Which means that, on impeachment, House Democrats may have more leeway than they believe to do what they think is legally and morally right.

And, Rachel Bitecofer’s tweet sums up two key distinctions nicely:

Could impeachment be bad for the Democrats.  Sure, it could.  But to base that conclusion solely off a poor analogy to 1998 is not the basis for smart politics.

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