Trump could be the new Clinton if Democrats impeach: sympathetic and stronger than ever

Trump could be the new Clinton if Democrats impeach: sympathetic and stronger than ever
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Democrats risk burning themselves if they fan the flames of Trump impeachment. Caveat igniter: Roasting someone at the stake is hotter than it appears. Political winds can change suddenly and blow the flames back on those who set them. No one knows this better than the Republicans who impeached Bill ClintonWilliam (Bill) Jefferson ClintonBudowsky: 3 big dangers for Democrats The Hill's Morning Report - Pelosi remains firm despite new impeachment push Another VPOTUS tries for POTUS: What does history tell us? MORE.  

The parallels between the Clinton and Trump presidencies are closer than Democrats would care to admit, and the consequences of impeachment are something Republicans would care to forget.  

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Arguably, President Clinton was in a weaker position than Trump is. Both were dogged by personal scandal suspicion. Both won the presidency by unusual means — Clinton by seeing third-party candidate Ross Perot split the opposition and Trump won one of America’s greatest upsets — and with well less than popular vote majorities (Bill Clinton with just 43 percent and Trump with 46 percent).  

In office, both had major policy failures. Clinton raised taxes too much (and admitted it) and spectacularly botched health care reform. Trump failed to replace ObamaCare. Both also suffered midterm defeat: Clinton lost 54 House seats, nine Senate seats, and Congress; Trump lost 40 House seats and the House. And both have been preoccupied by scandalous accusations in the White House.  

With all his negatives and aided by independent counsel Ken Starr’s findings, Republicans felt they had just cause to impeach Clinton in 1998. They did, taking him before the Senate — on two charges: perjury and obstruction of justice — only the second president so tried. And although Republicans had accumulated animosities and congressional majorities, they lacked the votes to remove him. More importantly, they lacked support in the court of public opinion.  

The parallels do not yet extend to impeachment. However, vocal Democrats believe they have cause for it. And like Clinton, Trump has an untethered investigation — Robert MuellerRobert (Bob) Swan MuellerThe Hill's 12:30 Report: Trump orders more troops to Mideast amid Iran tensions Trump: Democrats just want Mueller to testify for a 'do-over' Graham: Mueller investigation a 'political rectal exam' MORE’s probe — that only further fuels these Democrats’ fire.  

All this adds up to Democratic leaders’ impeachment problem. With a new House majority — populated by many who feel it is due to strenuous Trump opposition — impeachment is now within their grasp. How to keep firebrands from inflaming their caucus and burning it at the same time?

Republicans’ impeachment experience is a cautionary tale of playing with fire. Instead of Clinton’s, they began his rehabilitation. Clinton became for the first time a sympathetic figure.  

Despite having evidence Clinton had lied under oath, along and other past actions fitting within what many considered the broad gamut of “high crimes and misdemeanors,” Americans were uncomfortable with removing him. Senate Democrats therefore felt no real political pressure when it came time to vote. Republicans did not get close to the needed two-thirds threshold and Clinton remained.    

That a repetition could occur for Trump should give today’s Democrats ample reason to reconsider taking action on red-hot rhetoric — especially considering that while Trump’s position is similar to Clinton’s, theirs is weaker than Republicans’ two decades ago. 

Trump does not have strong poll numbers; neither did Clinton — even winning re-election he failed to get 50 percent of the popular vote. Like Clinton, Trump has a strong economy to fall back on. And unlike Clinton, Trump does not have — at least yet — a damning outside counsel’s report.  

Unlike Republicans of 20 years ago, Democrats lack a Senate majority, so reaching the two-thirds threshold appears impossible. And even getting there would require tough votes for many House Democrats holding districts Trump won in 2016.  

However, more important than raw congressional numbers is the American public’s reaction. Can Democrats be sure they will not encounter the same backdraft effect from a public again uncomfortable with a political process attempting to circumvent an electoral one?   

Two decades ago, Americans were comfortable in their political dissonance of having elected both Republican congressional majorities and a Democratic president. Americans are again in that position, are Democrats sure it would change in their favor this time?  

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Democrats’ final concern should be timing. Republicans attacked Clinton after his re-election — Democrats would be attacking Trump before his.  

Certainly, an argument could be made that the proceedings would undercut Trump in 2020. However, it could also be more cogently argued, based on the Clinton experience, that the likely acquittal would equate to innocence to most Americans. A rehabilitated Trump could then be even more formidable than incumbent presidents seeking re-election already are. Make no mistake: Failure to remove Trump from office would amount to personal exoneration — regardless of the facts faced — and political vindication that the effort was a witch hunt gone awry.  

J.T. Young served under President George W. Bush as the director of communications in the Office of Management and Budget and as deputy assistant secretary in legislative affairs for tax and budget at the Treasury Department. He served as a congressional staffer from 1987 to 2000.