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Clinton's Impeachment Isn't The Cautionary Tale Democrats Think It Is

By Emily Cutler | TV | June 17, 2019 |

By Emily Cutler | TV | June 17, 2019 |


So, listen, I love John Oliver. You love John Oliver. Everyone loves John Oliver. And ninety-nine percent of the time, he’s one of the few journalists (yes, he’s absolutely a journalist) who gets it. Owing to both the show structure and the network, Oliver and Co. have the ability to do deep dives into important subjects and the leeway to make it really entertaining. He does good work, but he’s not perfect. To wit, his piece from last night’s episode on the possibility of impeaching Trump.

There’s been a lot of discussion about the near impeachment of Nixon, and the complete impeachment of Clinton. As it turns out, we have almost no clear idea of the real-time implications of those impeachments as they were happening. The tape covers the fact that Nixon’s impeachment was anything but certain for most of the Watergate scandal. Let’s also keep in mind that Watergate took much, much longer than we think it did. Meaning that our current ambivalence on impeachment doesn’t feel like it’s as cut and dried as Nixon’s. We’re worried that it won’t be a slam dunk, and need to examine the consequences in order to plot the best course. Clinton, after all, was the subject of an impeachment process that didn’t have widespread support and it completely backfired. The failed impeachment did nothing but increase Clinton’s popularity and increase the number of Democrats in Congress after the 1998 election. The lesson we learned is that it is bad politics to try to impeach a President lest it cost us elections, right?

Totally. Except for that part where Clinton wasn’t officially impeached until December of ‘98. The actual impeachment, and to a large extent the impeachment inquiry, played no role in the elections because they happened too close to election day or after it. The cautionary tale from the Clinton impeachment isn’t that you shouldn’t impeach until you have the support of the country, it’s that you shouldn’t allow the general public to begin forming opinions on a political and legal matter without very explicitly laying out the case. The Republicans talked shit about Clinton for months but couldn’t pull the trigger until it was too late to impact the election, causing voters to side with Clinton because they thought he was being unfairly maligned, because they didn’t know the whole story. The lesson isn’t “weigh the political implications.” It’s “stop talking shit, and start explaining your case.”

Also, stop pretending that every political situation is the same. Clinton was a popular president who was mostly successful and had a reputation as being cooperative and moderate. And the public’s perception (correct or not) was that he was being railroaded for cheating on his wife. Trump is a wildly unpopular president who has been accused by a career civil servant, known for his almost pathological inability to break a rule, of committing at least ten discrete instances of obstruction of justice. A career public servant who’s had thirty-four convictions related to the investigation into just how corrupt Trump is.

Of course, all of those comparisons are working under a set of old norms. I’m not sure if you guys knew this, but Donald Trump is president. Norms f*cked off a while back. Which means Pelosi isn’t wrong for wanting to consider the political ramifications, she’s just operating under a faulty system. I don’t think she’s wrong to be concerned, I just think she’s applying the data in a bad way. Trump won’t be removed from office. He won’t lose support with his voters because they don’t give a sh*t if he lies or breaks the law. And, as the video shows, the facts surrounding the case aren’t reaching his voters anyway. The impeachment process isn’t about that. It’s about:

1) assuring the Democratic base that leaders understand why they won in 2018 and fulfilling their promise to hold Trump accountable.

2) making Trump’s crimes the focal point of all political coverage from now until the election, and owning the media cycle through it. Even better, make every Republican in Congress go on record against impeachment. Force the decision between appeasing the Trump base and acknowledging the overwhelming evidence of Trump’s guilt. Make them own this.

3) doing the right goddamn thing. There is nothing that would grind the current resistance movement to a halt faster than everyone in the goddamn country knowing that Trump broke the law repeatedly, and having no recourse for it. Having Democrats acknowledge that Trump should be impeached, but refusing to do so for political reasons is the same craven bullshit that’s allowed a generation of voters to call all of them equally bad and opt out. To hell with the optics, Pelosi. Do what’s right.

Header Image Source: HBO