OPINION — In Joe Biden’s statement on the Clinton impeachment released to the Congressional Record on Feb. 12, 1999, he cautioned his fellow senators, calling impeachment “the most obviously anti-democratic act the Senate can engage in — overturning an election by convicting the president.”
He also said that impeachment had “no place in our system of constitutional democracy except as an extreme measure … reserved for breaches of the public trust by a president who so violates his official duties, misuses his official powers or places our system of government at such risk that our constitutional government is put in immediate danger by his continuing to serve out the term to which the people of the United States elected him.”
And finally, “Only a president is chosen by the people in a national election. … To remove a duly elected president clashes with democratic principles in a way that simply has no constitutional parallel.”
What a difference two decades, party denomination and a presidential bid makes.
On Dec. 19, 1998, two months before Biden made those remarks to his Senate colleagues sitting in judgement on two articles of impeachment, I was on the floor of the House when those articles were passed, for the most part, by party-line votes. On that day, members of Congress undertook one of their most important constitutional responsibilities — whether to impeach, as Biden put it, the duly elected president of the United States.
It was a powerful moment for me, seeing history being made after weeks of internal GOP debate and discussion. It had been a difficult time for the Republican caucus even without impeachment. Speaker Newt Gingrich had announced his decision to leave Congress after the GOP’s poor showing in the 1998 midterms. Then, on the morning of the impeachment vote itself, Bob Livingston, expected to replace Gingrich, abruptly withdrew his candidacy.
As votes on the four articles of impeachment began, I knew impeachment was going forward, just not how many articles would pass or what the aftereffects might be. And I don’t think I was alone in feeling that we were about to embark on a journey into unknown territory.
A disquieting time
The country had seen only two impeachments in its 222-year history, though Richard Nixon resigned before an impeachment vote technically took place. A century earlier, Andrew Johnson had barely survived his impeachment. Both episodes damaged national unity in a way that is difficult to underestimate.
But in 1998, once again, the American people found themselves divided, this time over the personal misconduct of Bill Clinton. Though Clinton was impeached by the House on two articles — perjury and obstruction of justice — he was not convicted by the Senate. But that doesn’t mean there wasn’t fallout from what was a bitterly partisan fight, one that has cast a long shadow over the nation’s politics for more than 20 years.
As I watched members vote for and against impeachment, what I remember most was the disquieting feeling within the chamber itself. There was no celebratory mood. Few members were happy to be there. It was as if the members at that moment collectively realized the gravity of what they were actually about to do. In essence, they were voting to override the people’s decision and put in motion the process to overturn the election of a president.
It was a sobering experience for a staffer, but for House members, it was an incredibly serious responsibility, only superseded in importance by a vote to take the country into war. Yet partisanship on both sides marred the outcome in the House and later the Senate, tearing the country apart and tarnishing Clinton’s legacy despite his exoneration.
Clinton’s impeachment wasn’t popular with the public at the time and never was, even as the Senate trial got underway. Neither was Nixon’s impeachment initially, but public attitudes turned around as the evidence of criminal wrong-doing emerged. But it is difficult to compare the Clinton and Nixon impeachment to today, in part, because voters now have access to far more information than 45 years ago or even the late ’90s; and political information is filtered through an increasingly acrimonious partisan lens.
It’s a different environment now. But even today, comparing polls on impeachment with a volatile electorate poses risks. How one asks questions of voters and what options they are given can dramatically affect their responses. For example, if voters are asked whether or not they support impeachment, we might see one result. But if given the option of censure, for example, we might see another as we did in Clinton’s case.
The gold standard
If the Democrats are resting their decision to impeach the president, or not, on political advantage rather than principles, they are on shaky ground. Instead, Nancy Pelosi and Adam Schiff would be wise to follow the standard that House Judiciary Chairman Peter Rodino set in 1974 as his committee moved forward with the Nixon impeachment inquiry. Unlike Schiff, whose Intelligence panel is more star chamber than objective investigation, Rodino understood that to be effective, his committee’s process and methods had to be fair to both sides.
He chose a bipartisan team of staff lawyers to work with his committee. He allowed Nixon’s White House counsel, James St. Clair, to be present at committee meetings and receive the same documents the committee received. Yes, there were some partisan flare-ups as the committee worked, often behind closed doors. It’s Washington after all.
But because Rodino respected the loyal opposition and their supporters and allowed them to play an appropriate role, leaks were kept to a minimum as both Republicans and Democrats worked together to produce an outcome that was seen as fair to both sides.
Most importantly, before he began his inquiry, Rodino asked for a vote by the full House to move forward. As he said at the time, “Jurisdiction over impeachment is nowhere expressly conferred. It is not enough to argue that the general power of the Judiciary Committee to proceed may ultimately be upheld.”
Yet, in Pelosi’s world, a vote to begin an impeachment inquiry isn’t a necessity. Apparently, it’s a political question — a decision based on how it might hurt her party’s members, and not a confirmation by the House to proceed. Pelosi has chosen raw power over Rodino’s even-handed proceedings and that tells almost half the country their vote in 2016 simply doesn’t matter.
I remember 1998 and the damage done to the country in the months of impeachment. If we are to go down that path again, it’s time Pelosi follows the remarkable precedent established by Rodino’s call on the House floor for an authorizing vote and a fair process.
He told his colleagues, “Whatever the result, whatever we learn or conclude, let us now proceed with such care and decency and thoroughness and honor, that the vast majority of the American people and their children after them will say: ‘That was the right course. There was no other way.’”
David Winston is the president of The Winston Group and a longtime adviser to congressional Republicans. He previously served as the director of planning for Speaker Newt Gingrich. He advises Fortune 100 companies, foundations, and nonprofit organizations on strategic planning and public policy issues, and is an election analyst for CBS News.