Why calls for impeachment have become commonplace
A half century ago, a popular lapel pin urged Americans to celebrate the centennial of the impeachment of President Johnson by … impeaching President Johnson. Instead of prosecuting Andrew Johnson for violating the Tenure of Office Act (a dubious ground for impeachment), the red, white and blue button voiced the widespread anger at Lyndon Johnson for his alleged treachery associated with his escalation of the war in Vietnam. Unlike his namesake, however, LBJ never had a fear of impeachment, in part because his transgressions seemed limited to bad judgment not criminal behavior.
It is important to remember that no president faced a serious threat of impeachment from 1789 until Andrew Johnson in 1868. Then, for over a century, the procedure lay unused against presidents until Richard Nixon faced almost certain impeachment and conviction over the Watergate scandal in 1974 before he resigned. Only months after Gerald Ford assumed the presidency, Democrats in Congress floated the possibility of impeaching him for cutting a deal with Nixon that traded resignation for a pardon. (This little-remembered effort is recounted in my book, The Class of ’74.)
A decade later, many Democrats contemplated filing impeachment resolutions again Ronald Reagan for his attempted efforts to cover-up knowledge of White House operatives circumventing congressional strictures against aiding the anti-Sandinista “contras” in Nicaragua’s civil war. Although aides were prosecuted, Reagan himself escaped, partly because many in Congress believed he was too confused to have orchestrated the deception.
Just over a decade later, Bill Clinton actually was impeached — though not convicted — over allegations over his inappropriate personal behavior and his alleged prevarications during questioning. Neither charge against him received a majority vote in the Senate let alone the two-thirds required for conviction.
Less than a decade after Clinton’s trial, the new Democratic speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi, was pushed to launch an impeachment inquiry into whether George W. Bush had intentionally misled the Congress and the country about Iraq’s alleged possession of weapons of mass destruction in order to galvanize the nation into beginning a seemingly endless war. Pelosi, focused on enacting her “6 for ‘06” legislative agenda, pushed back against the impeachment demands notwithstanding her own suspicions about Bush’s mendacity and her fervent opposition to the war.
Nearly a decade and a half later, we again find ourselves in the midst of demands for the impeachment of a president. A process one rarely contemplated seemingly has become reflexively discussed. Indeed, some journalists were even speculating in April 2016 that Trump could face impeachment soon after being inaugurated — and he hadn’t even been nominated yet!
What explains that evolution? Are presidents more dishonest? Are Congresses more obsessed with finding wrongdoing? Or is there something more profound about the changing nature of American politics?
Indeed, American politics have become far more polarized as parties ideologically realigned and the middle ground dramatically withered over the past 40 years.
With the rise of partisanship has come a far greater level of equity — close margins of control — between the parties, with persistent competition for the control of Congress more closely resembling the quadrennial race for the White House. In the 62 years from 1932 to 1994, Democrats controlled the House for all but four years; in the modern political era, however, control of one house or another has shifted in 1980, 1986, 1994, 2001, 2010, 2014 and 2018, resulting in a heightened competitive fervor fed by unrestrained money and round-the-clock “news” coverage often untethered from the facts.
The more frequent change in control of Congress has also meant a greater chance that the House will be controlled by the party other than that of the president, especially since off-year elections often serve the purpose of checking the power of the person in the White House. Indeed, every presidential impeachment has unsurprisingly come when the House and White House were under different party control.
Lastly have been the cultural changes, especially more rigid ideology and an expectation of immediate gratification, unwillingness to wait for the next election, and activist base groups that view election outcomes as little more than the starting point for investigations and challenges to winners.
In an earlier era like the 1960s, none of these factors existed, and so despite those clever “Impeach Johnson” buttons, there was little contemplation of impeaching a president. Perhaps the only way to avoid the threat of impeachment is the way Barack Obama did during eight scandal-free years: Deny critics the grounds in the first place.
NOTE: This post has been updated from the original to correct a date in the list of years one or another chamber in Congress changed control.
John A. Lawrence, former chief of staff to Speaker Nancy Pelosi, is the author of “The Class of ’74: Congress After Watergate and the Roots of Partisanship” and a Fellow at George Washington University’s Graduate School of Political Management. Follow him on Twittter @JohnALawrenceDC.
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