OPINION — If anyone understands how badly a perfectly good impeachment can go, it’s Speaker Nancy Pelosi.
Pelosi was in the House chamber on Dec. 19, 1998, when the House voted to impeach President Bill Clinton. Less remembered is the moment earlier in the day when speaker-designate Bob Livingston, Republicans’ choice to succeed Newt Gingrich after a disastrous midterm election performance, shocked his caucus and announced on the floor that he, too, would resign from the House after Hustler magazine threatened it would go public with his numerous extramarital affairs.
In the end, the 1998 march to impeachment cost Republicans two House speakers and one midterm election — and the Senate still failed to convict the president on the articles the House advanced. And that was when all sides, including Clinton, agreed on the facts at hand — that Clinton had lied to prosecutors about having had an affair with White House intern Monica Lewinsky.
It’s no wonder that Pelosi is taking a deliberate, even cautious approach. Here are five reasons why she’s wise not to rush into impeaching President Donald Trump, no matter how much progressive Democrats want to do it:
1. The Starr report was an open door and a tank of gas to impeach Clinton. The Mueller report is just an open door.
When independent counsel Ken Starr sent his report to Congress in the fall of 1998, he explicitly detailed “substantial and credible information supporting … 11 possible grounds for impeachment.”
In contrast, the Mueller report into Russian interference in the 2016 election details a web of international intrigue that included members of the Trump campaign. Did the president obstruct justice in his attempts to cover up that fact? The Mueller report makes it clear that Congress’ own investigations will have to pick up where the special counsel’s investigation left off.
2. The Senate votes aren’t there yet.
No matter how many votes Democrats have in the House to impeach Trump, Senate procedure requires a two-thirds majority to convict anyone on impeachment charges and remove him from office. Even with a five-vote margin in 1999, Senate Republicans didn’t come anywhere close to that.
Especially after the midterm elections, which Republicans had expected to dominate, Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott knew an acquittal of Clinton was a foregone conclusion, he recently told The Hill. “I wasn’t ever going to have the votes. So the question was: How do we do it with dignity to get it to a conclusion?”
Fast forward to today, and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has made it clear how he would handle any impeachment that Pelosi sends over based on the Mueller report. “The special counsel’s finding is clear,” McConnell said. “Case closed.”
3. It’s not (really) bipartisan.
Yes, Rep. Justin Amash is on board. But the perennial conservative gadfly hasn’t exactly started a GOP stampede to oust Trump. In fact, he’s been the lone raised hand in a sea of Republican shoulder shrugs in response to the Mueller report.
Even in 1998, with the Clinton-Gingrich partisan war engulfing the Capitol, 31 House Democrats voted with the House majority to start the impeachment inquiry against Clinton.
Five even voted to impeach Clinton later that December. No such bipartisan cover exists for Pelosi and House Democrats today, which makes it all too easy for Trump to dismiss the effort, as he routinely does, as a partisan witch hunt.
4. 2020 looms.
The political dynamic in 1998, with the midterm elections bearing down, meant that the only people who would really suffer the consequences of an impeachment misfire would be the House Republicans who pushed it, namely their leadership.
The stakes for Democrats, with the presidential elections fast approaching, are much higher. A botched impeachment attempt could cost them not only the House majority, but also the White House.
Going into Election Day 1998, Gingrich was so sure of victory, he predicted a pickup of 10 to 40 seats. On the day after Republicans lost five seats and saw their majority whittled to six votes, The New York Times described a behind-the-scenes bloodbath as Republicans “tore into one another over who was to blame.” One compared congressional leaders to the captains of the Titanic. Others blamed Gingrich for having no agenda other than impeachment. By Friday of that week, Gingrich was out.
In the House for all of those events: Every high-ranking member of the current Democratic leadership, including Pelosi, Majority Leader Steny Hoyer and Majority Whip Jim Clyburn. House Judiciary Chairman Jerry Nadler was there too. Are they ready to repeat that history? No.
5. You can’t unring the bell of opening an impeachment inquiry.
An argument has percolated from cable news that Democrats should simply open an impeachment inquiry as a way to compel the White House to respond to subpoenas and produce documents.
While it’s true it could give Democrats a boost in a legal standoff with the White House, an impeachment inquiry is not a legal strategy — it’s a nuclear bomb. If Democrats use it, they should be honest with themselves and the American people about the road they’re going down.
So far, more than 45 House Democrats have said they’re in favor of opening a House inquiry, but, luckily for them, Pelosi is not. She told Jimmy Kimmel last week that they need an “ironclad” case. “We have to be ready, and it has to be clear to the American people, and we have to hope that it will be clear to the Republicans in the United States Senate.”
Have Democrats met those three conditions? They’re on the path, as the speaker has said many times, but they’re not there yet. Pelosi’s no dummy — and they should follow her lead until they get where they’re going.
Patricia Murphy covers national politics for The Daily Beast. Previously, she was the Capitol Hill bureau chief for Politics Daily and founder and editor of Citizen Jane Politics. Follow her on Twitter @1PatriciaMurphy.