Impeachment politics are tricky, but Republicans can act with conviction

Impeachment politics are tricky, but Republicans can act with conviction
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By combatting congressional oversight, President TrumpDonald John TrumpFacebook releases audit on conservative bias claims Harry Reid: 'Decriminalizing border crossings is not something that should be at the top of the list' Recessions happen when presidents overlook key problems MORE seems to be daring Democrats to impeach him. Yesterday, special counsel Robert Mueller poured fuel on the fire when he refused to absolve the president of obstruction of justice in the Russia investigation, pitching the presidential accountability decision to Congress. If President Trump thinks impeachment is a guaranteed political winner for him, recent history is not on his side.

President Bill ClintonWilliam (Bill) Jefferson ClintonBen Shapiro: No prominent GOP figure ever questioned Obama's legitimacy The Hill's 12:30 Report: Trump tries to reassure voters on economy 3 real problems Republicans need to address to win in 2020 MORE’s 1998 impeachment aftermath is the model most cited by pundits who see positives for Trump. The most memorable moment of that NC-17 presidential scandal is easily Clinton’s January 1998 televised finger-wagging lie — “I did not have sexual relations ... with that woman, Ms. Lewinsky. I never told anybody to lie. … These allegations are false.”  — followed by his stunning reversal eight months later.

After testifying before a grand jury that August, Clinton went on national television again and admitted mistakes: “I did have a relationship with Ms. Lewinsky that was not appropriate. In fact, it was wrong.” He confessed to misleading people, expressed regret and took responsibility for his “critical lapse in judgment” and “personal failure.”

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Then he punched back. He challenged special counsel Kenneth Starr and declared it was time to get back to work on “all the challenges and all the promise of the next American century.”

It was breathtaking.

It’s true, President Clinton didn’t confess to the American people until he was cornered, but importantly, he put on his public sackcloth and ashes weeks before the Republican Congress released the Starr Report to the public on Sept. 11, 1998. Trump already has missed that window.

Clinton’s admission opened the door for every Democrat to condemn his personal behavior, holding him accountable and protecting their own reputations, before demanding the country get on with governing. Then-U.S. Sen. Joe Lieberman (D-Conn.), a longtime Clinton friend, gave the most piercing of such speeches. On Sept. 3, 1998, he took the Senate floor detailing the “larger, graver sense of loss for our country, a reckoning of the damage that the president’s conduct has done to the proud legacy of his presidency and, ultimately, an accounting of the impact of his actions on our democracy and its moral foundations.”

But Lieberman concluded he was against impeachment and the president deserved “additional opportunities to accept personal responsibility, to rebuild public trust in his leadership … and to act to heal the wounds in our national character.” Today’s Republican senators should take notes.

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Unlike Trump, Clinton was being held accountable by himself, the nation and his party. He admitted fault. There was apparent chilliness in his marriage. Media coverage was blistering, and Democrats were unwilling to defend his personal behavior. Republicans convened an impeachment inquiry on Oct. 5 anyway. While the American public was getting in the mood for grace, Republicans seemed to be kicking Clinton while he was down. On Election Day 1998, voters refused to join in on the stomping.

This is where impeachment politics get tricky.

Democrats won seats that November, defying historical trends, but let’s keep this in perspective. The benefit to President Clinton’s political party was a grand total of five House seats. Five.

In the wake of the actual impeachment vote on Dec. 19, Clinton’s approval ratings shot up into the 70s, but it’s hard to know how he would have fared in a reelection campaign. No president has ever faced the voters after an impeachment crisis, but neither Horatio Seymore in 1868, Gerald Ford in 1976, nor Al Gore in 2000 was able to hold the White House for their respective parties.

Bill Clinton’s case gets even trickier. He never stood for election again, but his wife, Hillary Clinton, waged two campaigns for president. They weren’t exactly proxy contests for her husband, but his shadow didn’t help. She lost both.

Impeachment stains don’t wash out easily.

The immediate politics for President Trump aren’t clear cut, but they seem to be for the rest of the Republicans. If half of what Robert Mueller laid out in his report concluding the Trump-Russia investigation is true, history will not be kind to Trump’s defenders. Like Congressman Amash, Republicans with conviction and future aspirations should look for ways to hold Trump accountable, even if they don’t support impeachment. In 1998, Democrats proposed censuring Clinton. Conservatives balked then, but if Congress doesn’t stand up for itself now, are they willing to accept a president with no limits?  

Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.) makes a compelling case for accountability, even if the president remains in office: “… There comes a point in life where we all have to make decisions based upon the fact that it is our watch. And, you know, history, I think even if we did not win, possibly, if there were not impeachment, I think history would smile upon us for standing up for the Constitution.”

Republicans, this is your watch, too.

Jamal Simmons is a Democratic strategist who has worked for the Clinton White House, Congress and the Clinton, Gore and Obama presidential campaigns. He is a liberal host for The Hill’s new Hill.TV video division. Follow him on Twitter @JamalSimmons.