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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More likely, the DCCC has concluded there's no impeachment backlash for a candidate to run on. Smith says, "we don't test impeachment in our polls." But it doesn't make sense that the DCCC would let the issue go unexplored if Democrats thought they had something they could campaign on and win with. As for MoveOn, the online impeachment avengers, the last press release posted on the organization's website is dated June 30, 1999. Moving on, indeed.

Republicans have reason to find these developments cheering. Yet it would be dangerous to read the evolution of public attitudes as an after-the-fact endorsement of the GOP. What's really on people's minds here is something about which the polling data have only so much to say.

The subject is necessarily speculative. But it's probably worth noting that Americans have a generally sunny sense of their own history, expressed in the sentiment that things usually turn out for the best. In accordance with this sentiment, while majorities may not have wanted Bill Clinton to be impeached, in retrospect the fact that he was doesn't look so bad. Second, Clinton's departure from office is drawing nearer by the day, and so it's possible people are finding it easier to bring to mind a White House without him in it.

More fundamentally, though, there is the question of how seriously engaged the electorate really was and is. Again, this is an area for speculation. Are voters willing to forgive Republicans in the House for impeachment only because the Senate acquitted him? If the Senate had voted to remove him, would the electorate now be mad as hell about it? Well, could be -- but that is hard to square with current sentiment that favors the idea of his removal. At the time, voters seemed to be as firmly and consistently resolved on the question of impeachment as public opinion ever is, on any subject. Yet this firm and consistent opinion was not accompanied by any public desire to punish those politicians who defied it. So, how deep, really, was the public's conviction that impeachment was wrong? Is the electorate's current view of the impeachment more a matter of forgiveness (of Republicans) or forgetfulness (about the whole thing)?

Consider it from another angle: Suppose in the fall of 1998, the economy had turned sour and President Clinton's job approval rating simultaneously dropped sharply. Would anyone have believed that the drop was a result of the American people suddenly waking up to the seriousness of the offenses the House was then considering? In short, did Americans -- apart from the relatively small minority on both sides who take politics seriously and follow it closely -- ever really think those seemingly momentous events in Washington mattered much at all? Did they rally to the defense of the president -- or to the defense of a status quo of unprecedented comfort, peace, and prosperity against the possibility of disruption?

When people said "move on," perhaps what they meant was only "move on." Not, we must rally round the president to save the Constitution; not, the president is being unjustly persecuted; not, his actions are reprehensible but not impeachable; not, he is only human and he has apologized; not, he has suffered enough. Just "move on."

Bill Clinton may urgently desire the return of the House to Democratic control in 2000 as a counterbalance to impeachment in history's judgment of him -- an electoral repudiation of the GOP majority that tried to oust him. By now, though, the combined weight of anecdote and polling data clearly indicates that if Democrats do regain the House this year, it will have nothing to do with Clinton's impeachment. Similarly, if Republicans maintain their majority, it will not be because the country has suddenly embraced the GOP view of Bill Clinton.

If Democrats win, Clinton will try to spin it differently, of course -- as a national referendum on him and his persecutors resulting in his complete vindication. But then, he has never been one to underestimate his own importance in the grand scheme of things.

Tod Lindberg is editor of Policy Review.