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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Impeachments Are Always Partisan

On the occasion of Donald Trump’s impeachment by the U.S. House of Representatives, I offered a quick history lesson at New York to counter all the angst about the partisanship of the process:

[Y]ou may have already heard handwringing comments about the exceptional partisanship that House members exhibited in the vote to impeach Donald TrumpIt wouldn’t have happened in the days when members of Congress socialized with each other and worked on legislation in a spirit of comity, etc., etc.

Perhaps there is some merit in that much-rehearsed paean to lost bipartisanship, so full of manufactured nostalgia that it ought to be made into a Hallmark Channel movie. But actually, the two previous examples of House votes on presidential impeachment were arguably just as partisan, differing only in degree.

The principal vote to impeach Andrew Johnson (in those days the House voted on a general resolution of impeachment before drafting individual articles), on February 24, 1868, was carried by a 126-47 margin, with 17 members not voting. Of those who did vote, all but two Republicans voted “aye” and all the Democrats voted “nay,” according to the official House history. The later votes on the 11 individual articles eventually sent over to the Senate are hard to find online, but the House history indicates that the margins were “similar.”

When the House voted on the impeachment of Bill Clinton on December 19, 1998 (Thursday is the 21st anniversary of that event), the two articles on which the president was later tried by the Senate passed, per the New York Times, on near-party-line votes. The first, impeaching him for perjury before a federal grand jury, passed by a 228-206 margin in the Republican-controlled chamber, with five Republicans and five Democrats defecting. The second, alleging obstruction of justice, passed by a narrower 221-212 vote. This time 12 Republicans and five Democrats broke ranks.

Yes, there was theoretically more bipartisanship in votes on two articles of impeachment the House rejected, mostly because some Republicans considered them redundant or too easily mockable. An article alleging perjury in the Paula Jones civil case lost 229-205, with 28 Republicans defecting and no Democrats breaking ranks. And a final article alleging “abuse of power” because Clinton apparently offended the dignity of Judiciary Committee Republicans by answering their written interrogatories evasively, didn’t resonate much outside that committee; it was defeated by a wide margin with 81 Republicans (and one Democrat) breaking ranks.

There were, of course, many differences between the three impeachments. Andrew Johnson was pretty much a lame duck, rejected by both major parties as a reelection prospect (though he did get some votes at the later Democratic Convention; he was later elected to the Senate as a Democrat, rejoining his pre-Civil War party), by the time he was impeached. Clinton was a popular second-term president. Johnson was very nearly convicted and removed from office by the Senate; there was never any real chance that would happen to Clinton.

But the most conspicuous thing distinguishing Trump’s impeachment from those of his predecessors has been the full-throated defense of his conduct by his own party. By the time he was impeached, Johnson was virtually a man without a party; southern Democrats, while voting against impeachment and removal, couldn’t be that thrilled about the man who demonized them during the Civil War as traitors who deserved death in battle or by hanging. And he was acquitted mostly because of the concerns some Republicans had that the Tenure of Office Act (banning removal of Cabinet members without congressional concurrence), the backbone of the impeachment articles after Johnson defied it, was unconstitutional (as it was eventually held to be by the Supreme Court). As for Clinton, many, many Democrats condemned his behavior during the Lewinsky scandal, and there was robust support in their ranks in Congress for a measuring censuring him.

So you could say that this third presidential impeachment was more partisan than the first two in that the two parties were not simply arguing over what should be done about a president’s misconduct, but whether it existed at all. And I suspect that his party will be found guilty for that misdemeanor at the bar of history, if not sooner in the 2020 elections.

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