Featured photo: Three Cases of Impeachment: President Andrew Johnson, President Richard Nixon, President Bill Clinton
In leaving half the country behind in this partisan impeachment process, Democrats have all but insured that historic vote will keep coming back to haunt us.
The biggest casualty of Donald Trump’s impeachment may be the impeachment process itself.
Growing up in the shadow of Richard Nixon’s failed presidency, there was a certain sense of awe connected to the institution of impeachment. Nixon went from a 49-state landslide reelection in 1972 to resigning from office less than two years later due to the Watergate scandal. He left the White House after articles of impeachment moved from the House Judiciary Committee but before they were adopted by the full House. Yet Nixon knew he lacked support in the Senate to fight the impeachment, and his robust public support had plummeted.
Nixon resigned, as he said, to hasten “the start of that process of healing which is so desperately needed in America.”
His resignation was a definitive moment in the formative years of today’s senior leadership in Washington. Impeachment was the ultimate political spectacle in America. For some, Nixon’s downfall was a long sought-after objective. For others, a time of sadness and shame. But everyone recognized the magnitude of what President Gerald Ford called “our long national nightmare.”
The division of Clinton’s impeachment
The 1998-99 Clinton impeachment was not as grand a moment. There was a sense of victory among those in the Republican Party who thought Bill Clinton was somehow an illegitimate president. But the crimes he was accused of — principally lying under oath to cover up an illicit sexual affair in the White House — lacked the sense of moment of Watergate.
Clinton was unrepentant; he believed that the impeachment was illegitimate and that he was defending the Constitution as well as himself.
The vote in the House was mostly along party lines, and in the Senate the only bipartisanship was for acquittal. Public opinion was also on Clinton’s side; his approval numbers remained strong throughout the process, and the highest Gallup approval ranking of his entire presidency was the week the House voted to impeach.
Clinton’s experience and that of Nixon might have informed House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s statement last March that “impeachment is so divisive to the country that unless there’s something so compelling and overwhelming and bipartisan, I don’t think we should go down that path because it divides the country.”
USA TODAY Editorial Board:Impeach President Trump
This was true then and remains so. Unfortunately, Pelosi did not heed her own counsel. There is no bipartisanship. Members of both parties are hardened in their respective positions; and Republicans especially are angered at what they see as an abuse of power. This is primarily because Democrats have failed to make a compelling, easily understandable case against Trump.
The alleged crimes are not compelling, but confusing, overbroad and constitutionally suspect. The process was rushed and clouded with unconventional processes such as secret meetings, anonymous accusers, refusal to hear defense witnesses and limited debate. And the articles of impeachment do not include many of the charges Democrats had been saying for some time were iron-clad impeachable offenses.
Impeachment talk started too early
There is also the impression that many Democrats were simply out to get Trump from the beginning. Liberals had been discussing ways to impeach Trump even before he was nominated.
Rep. Rashida Tlaib, D-Mich., infamously pledged “we’re gonna impeach the motherf—–” the day she was sworn into office last January.
Rep. Al Green, D-Texas, the first Democrat to call for Trump’s impeachment in 2017, did not help matters when he said that if they can’t get him this time, they can just do it again later.
Democrats also have not made their case to the American people. In the past few weeks, polls have moved in the president’s favor. There has been no decline in Trump support and growing strength for the president in key battleground states.
The RealClearPolitics aggregate poll moved sharply against removal from office this week. And for the first time during the Ukraine scandal, a plurality opposes it.
While Trump’s approval ratings are far below those Clinton enjoyed during his impeachment, the trend lines of support are similar, not at all like Nixon’s.
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Naturally, President Trump is having none of it. He believes he did nothing wrong and knows the Senate is unlikely to remove him. He can rally his base with all his accustomed bombast, making the impeachment just another campaign moment on his road to a second term.
Meanwhile, some Republicans have already pledged to impeach the next Democratic president just for payback. This would complete the descent of impeachment from a last-resort tool of national necessity to a partisan cudgel wielded whenever opportunity presented itself.
And this national nightmare is unlikely to end any time soon. The process of healing that Richard Nixon invoked 45 years ago is even more desperately needed in America today.
James S. Robbins, a member of USA TODAY’s Board of Contributors and author of “Erasing America: Losing Our Future by Destroying Our Past,” has taught at the National Defense University and the Marine Corps University and served as a special assistant in the office of the secretary of Defense in the George W. Bush administration. Follow him on Twitter: @James_Robbins