The Magazine

Impeachment Hasn't Hurt

House Republicans, it seems, won't be punished at the polls after all

Jul 3, 2000, Vol. 5, No. 40 • By TOD LINDBERG
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IT SEEMED LIKE a pretty big deal at the time, the impeachment and acquittal of President Clinton. And so it was, as political spectacle, as a search in the U.S. Constitution for its fundamental meaning, as the climax of a long-running clash between a Republican Congress and a Democratic president. It will rank as one of the great political stories of the twentieth century. Yet now -- not even 18 months later, as the first election since Clinton was acquitted fast approaches -- it's all but impossible to find so much as a lingering wisp of the Sturm und Drang of impeachment. In the 2000 elections, impeachment is the dog that isn't barking.

For obvious reasons, it's difficult to cite evidence of the disappearance (or perhaps non-emergence?) of impeachment as an issue. You end up pointing to the presence of an absence, and then speculating about its significance. But let's start with the obvious: This is not what either the accusers or the defenders of the president expected.

The polls taken as the Monica Lewinsky drama unfolded consistently showed strong public opposition to Clinton's impeachment and then to his removal. Although his personal approval ratings declined, his job approval ratings remained high. The message from this was quite clear to Democrats and Republicans alike. Clinton was supported by public opinion, and the Republicans in Congress were defying it.

Naturally, this balance produced threats from Democrats about the reprisals Republicans would face. A reckoning was coming, scheduled specifically for November 2000. Clinton would have an obvious stake not only in seeing his chosen successor, Al Gore, reach the White House, but in returning control over Congress (lost on his watch) to the Democrats. The latter, especially, would constitute a blow to the legitimacy of the House impeachment vote. A web-based organization called MoveOn made headlines by claiming it had received $ 13 million, in online pledges, for targeting members of Congress who voted for impeachment.

A little more than a week before Clinton's then-certain acquittal, the New York Times ran a story that vented the thirst for revenge felt in some quarters of the White House. The Times quoted "one advisor who has discussed the matter with Clinton": "He knows the districts, he knows the candidates, and he doesn't like these people. . . . He's obviously real hot on the [House impeachment] managers. He thinks winning back the House is part of his legacy." And from "one senior Clinton strategist": "Every one of those distinguished citizens is now on record saying they not only want to shut the government down but they want to kick the president out. That vote won't go away. And if they think the American people will forget about that, they should go and ask former president Gerald Ford. They will remember that."

Nor did Republicans treat such statements as mere partisan bluster. They, too, believed the polls. Though there were, to be sure, areas of the country sufficiently unfriendly to Bill Clinton to favor his removal, and they tended for obvious reasons to have Republican representatives, many Republicans not blessed with safe seats believed they were courting disaster with voters. Some went so far as to issue statements explaining that their consciences had compelled them to do what their political instincts warned them against. Henry Hyde's mordant wit as chief House manager nicely encapsulated his sense that he was doing his duty as he saw it, notwithstanding popular opposition: "I know, oh, do I know, what an annoyance we are in the bosom of this great body, but we are a constitutional annoyance. And I remind you of that fact." So predominant was public opinion that many Democrats in the House and Senate cited the president's high job approval rating itself as a sufficient reason not to impeach or convict.