The 1998 midterm election delivered an early verdict on Speaker Newt Gingrich’s plan to turn to impeachment after the vote: Democrats gained seats in the House that November, a rarity for the party holding the White House.
Weeks after their defeat and days before Christmas, House Republicans went ahead anyway and voted to impeach Bill Clinton on one count of perjury and one count of obstruction of justice.
Clinton’s poll ratings soared, hitting 73 percent after the House vote. Two months later, in February of 1999, the Republican-controlled Senate failed to garner the two-thirds majority needed to convict. Clinton was vindicated. The partisan witch hunt was over.
Therein lies a cautionary tale for Democrats should they begin proceedings to impeach President Donald Trump. Without at least 20 Republicans willing to join them in the Senate to vote to convict, impeachment could be the best thing that happens to a troubled presidency.
Yet the differences between the Clinton impeachment and what Trump is facing are significant enough to tempt Democrats to unleash this constitutional weapon.
First is the nature of the underlying crime. “One is driving 10 miles over the speed limit. The other is driving 110 miles drunk through a school zone,” says James Carville, one of Clinton’s most ardent allies and defenders during that impeachment process.
Clinton was guilty of improper sexual conduct, says Carville, while Trump could well be charged with treason. Of course, not everyone agrees. Trump’s defenders say paying off porn stars and violating campaign finance laws hardly reach the level of “high crimes” cited in the U.S. Constitution.
“We’re at the top of the second inning here,” Carville counters, citing Maria Butina’s guilty plea and noting, “They’re not talking to Paul Manafort about campaign donations.”
Carville and the other denizens of the Clinton War Room apparatus had reason to believe voters would push back against the GOP’s efforts. The White House did lots of polling, secretly of course, and, Carville recalls, “The country had the attitude, he shouldn’t have done this but what the heck. Outside of the Republican Party, there was no sense of outrage.”
I called the Ragin’ Cajun for his take on what it might be like today for another president—and another opposition party—grappling with impeachment.
Trump has strong support among the GOP base just as Clinton had support from Democrats once the initial shock of his behavior wore off. The advantage Clinton had is that independents supported him. Independents have abandoned Trump, one reason for the GOP’s poor showing in the November midterms.
“We had the best lawyers in the country, and we were up against a pack of clowns,” says Carville, citing Clinton’s lead lawyer David Kendall with Williams and Connolly, who rarely talked to the press and was very careful when he did. “Now they have a pack of clowns against the David Kendall of prosecutors,” says Carville, adding that Clinton also had “a better case… and better political support.”
After House Republicans voted to impeach Clinton in December of 1988, Starr’s approval rating fell to 11 percent in the New York Times/CBS News poll—some 62 points behind Clinton. Disapproval of the Republican Party shot up by 10 points, so that less than a third of the country had a favorable view of the GOP.
Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s approval rating is at 43 percent in a CNN poll released this week, down from 48 percent in October, the result of Trump’s recent barrage of attacks. He never talks to the press, while heading a famously leak-proof probe into Trump’s possible collusion.
Starr regularly briefed the press, and his minions were readily available to pass information to the media. Carville recalls that the Washington Post was such a conduit that some Clinton folks called lead reporter Susan Schmidt “Steno Sue” because, they alleged, “she would sit in Starr’s office and take dictation.” A highly regarded investigative reporter, Schmidt is now with the Wall Street Journal. Not one significant leak has come from Mueller’s office, a marked contrast to how Starr operated.
Another big difference was Clinton’s ability to “compartmentalize” and focus on the country while leaving his legal problems to the lawyers, even as he railed in private against what he believed was the unfairness of it all.
There was quite a stir in Washington on Sept. 3, 1998, just as the midterm campaigns were gearing up, when Sen. Joe Lieberman, a Democrat, took to the Senate floor to condemn Clinton’s sexual behavior as “immoral, disgraceful and damaging to the country.” The pundits wondered whether Clinton’s support among Senate Democrats would crack, but the Connecticut senator remained a lone voice. “Lieberman led but didn’t have anybody to follow him and he had to pull back,” says Carville.
When Vice President Gore named Lieberman as his running mate in 2000, the pick was widely seen as expressing Gore’s disgust with Clinton’s behavior. We know how that turned out.
The Clinton anti-impeachment apparatus worked the press every day along with what Carville calls “a little name-calling now and then.” He was an outside operator, and he enjoyed the luxury of lambasting Starr and the GOP while the White House press operation kept its distance, saying it couldn’t be held responsible for what Carville says, while loving every minute.
"This is a school lunch-cutting, government-closing, right wing-worshiping, sex-obsessed, president-hating party," he said of the Republicans. In the end, thanks in large part to Carville’s attacks, Starr came across as a cross between a prude and a pervert.
Carville took some hits too, but he was used to that. “We were pretty battle-hardened,” he says, referring to the team around Clinton having weathered multiple scandals throughout two campaigns and his presidency. Sure, there was some infighting, he says, but there weren’t a lot of resignations, and they didn’t lose a chief of staff.
Bottom line, says Carville, is that Trump is in a much weaker position than Clinton was—but as long as Senate Republicans back him, impeachment is a trap that Nancy Pelosi is right to push Democrats to avoid. Mueller has the expertise and resources to get to the bottom of whatever Trump may be guilty of. Members of Congress will get their turn.
“They took an oath to defend the Constitution, and it’s pretty clear the Constitution has been offended here,” says Carville.