The unpredictability of impeachment

Somehow America got through nearly 200 years and impeached only one President: North Carolina’s own Andrew Johnson. Now we’re going through our third presidential impeachment in just 45 years.

We’ve just about normalized impeachment.

Three of the last nine Presidents have faced it – Nixon, Clinton and now Trump. Four more – Reagan, both Bushes and Obama – heard mutterings about it. The other two, Ford and Carter, maybe weren’t in office long enough to be impeached.

What can we learn from the Nixon and Clinton experiences?

Public opinion on impeachment can change fast – and dramatically

Since Democrats took over the U.S. House last November, they’ve fretted that impeaching Trump would backfire on them, like it did on Republicans who impeached Clinton in 1998.

But the polls have shifted. Several recently showed that public support for impeachment has grown.

Nixon leaves the White House

In 1972, Richard Nixon won reelection with one of the biggest landslides in history. Less than two years later, his standing with the public had fallen so far that he didn’t have enough votes in the Senate to be acquitted. Nixon resigned.

(One Senator who stood by Nixon to the end was North Carolina’s Jesse Helms, who had been elected in 1972.)

Public opinion can also swing against impeachment.

When Monicagate broke in 1998, it looked like Clinton would have to resign within days. But he hung on and fought back.

By the time the House voted, public opinion was against impeachment. The Senate acquitted him.

Impeachment will have a huge impact on 2020

In the 1998 mid-terms, Republicans lost big. Newt Gingrich, who bet the House on impeachment, lost his Speakership.

In the 1974 mid-terms, just three months after Nixon left office, Republicans were almost wiped out. And the impact went way beyond Congress.

Take North Carolina. 1972 had been a breakthrough year for Republicans. For the first time in the 20th Century, they won races for Governor and U.S. Senate. They made big gains in the legislature.

After 1974, there were only 10 Republicans left in the 120-member House – and, in the 50-member Senate, just one lonely Republican.

2020 will be different from 1974 and 1998 in one big way. Nixon and Clinton were in their second terms when they were impeached. This time, barring resignation or removal, President Trump will be running for reelection.

The White House and both houses of Congress will be at stake. And the state legislatures elected in 2020 will control congressional and legislative redistricting in 2021. We’ve seen that movie in North Carolina.

Impeachment will have unlikely consequences

After Watergate:

  • North Carolina’s Senator Sam Ervin, who chaired the Senate Watergate investigation, went from being an anti-civil rights Southern segregationist to lovable Uncle Sam, champion of the Constitution.
  • Ervin’s aide Rufus Edmisten was elected Attorney General in 1974 and became a long-term fixture in North Carolina politics.
  • An unknown peanut farmer from Georgia became President. And he’s still building houses.

After Clinton’s impeachment:

  • He left the White House with sky-high ratings in the polls.
  • Vice President Al Gore couldn’t decide whether to embrace or run away from Clinton. He ended up losing the closest presidential race in history.
  • North Carolina elected a political newcomer, John Edwards, to the U.S. Senate. Edwards ran against Washington – and both parties. “The politicians up there spend all their time fighting each other,” he said. “I’ll fight for the people.” He narrowly upset incumbent Lauch Faircloth.

As wild as politics is today, there’s no telling what this impeachment battle will bring.

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