Let me preface this by saying that politics is unpredictable. I don’t know what will happen in next year’s election and I don’t know for a certainty what the political impact of President Trump’s impeachment will be. What I do know is this: for the last twenty years there has been a deep elite press consensus that impeachment carries a big risk of boomeranging on the party that impeaches a President and can actually bolster support for that President. This is flatly wrong. So I want to explain why it is wrong.
The evidence is pretty clear.
The test case for this theory is of course the impeachment of Bill Clinton. Clinton was caught up in a scandal that was at least a profound embarrassment to him and his supporters. The scandal paradoxically increased his levels of public support. Clinton’s public approval rating spiked to 69% at the outset of the scandal in early 1998, up from the mid-high 50s. It hovered in the mid-low 60s for the rest of the year and then spiked to an amazing 73% when he was actually impeached.
On their own, these numbers seem to support the theory. Indeed, they seem to suggest that a President’s best course to enduring popularity is to find a White House intern to have sex with. The truth is somewhat different.
Going back to the 1990s, the elite national press, especially in Washington, DC, was highly, highly invested in the idea that a major scandal would and should bring Bill Clinton down. It is also true that a majority of those same people likely voted for Clinton, at least in 1992. It’s complicated. Many books could be written on the increasingly strained, melodramatic and esoteric theories these people peddled trying to reconcile the fact that the public didn’t seem to see the matter in the same way.
When it comes to the question of impeachment, there was a similar pattern. Public opinion was very, very consistent over the course of 1998. The public did not want Clinton driven from office. The poll data is striking. Support for impeaching Clinton never got as high as 30%. For much of the year it was around 20%. Consistently throughout 1998, an overwhelming majority of the population opposed impeachment. As you can see from this chart, support for impeaching Clinton never got as high (though it got pretty close) as it did to impeaching Bush and Obama.
Clinton’s spiking popularity was clearly tied to a public rejection of the year long quest to drive him from office. Earlier this month we saw press reports that Clinton’s onetime advisor, the inveterate doofus Mark Penn was advising Trump to pursue the Clinton strategy of focusing on the public business rather than impeachment as a way to drive his popularity in the face of impeachment. Of course, this strategy is completely beyond Trump’s abilities. But even if it were not this strategy only worked if you understand the underlying reality that Clinton was leaning into an overwhelming public rejection of impeachment.
So after a year in which the public consistently, by a 2 to 1 margin, said they did not want the President impeached or removed from office, Republicans proceeded to impeach the President. It is quite clear that the real lesson here isn’t about impeachment. It is that if you do something that is overwhelmingly unpopular and which the public is closely focused on, you’re probably going to face some public backlash. Obvious.
Small point of personal privilege or rather gloating. I was one of the few people who predicted that Republicans would actually lose a few seats in the House in 1998 midterm when many were predicting a pick up as large as forty or fifty seats. You probably haven’t heard this because I was a nobody editor slaving away at a small political magazine in Cambridge, Massachusetts. But I assure you that if you were to ask any of my officemates they would confirm this, assuming they remembered, which they probably don’t.
I raise this because my genius prediction was based on just looking at the available polls which showed pretty clear that despite it being a midterm election in a President’s second term, Republicans would likely lose a few seats, which in fact they did. But the press consensus that there simply had to be a price Clinton and the Democrats would pay was so strong, people simply ignored the available polling data. Or more specifically, they came up with theories about how it had to be wrong.
The national elite media’s relationship with Bill Clinton was a weird and highly distorting mirror. It had a profound effect at the time and continues to do so. Republicans faced a backlash because impeachment was completely uncalled for and a grossly irresponsible decision. That is of course my subjective judgment. But it is certainly mirrored by public polling data which shows very clearly that it was always an overwhelmingly unpopular decision. Ignore the public will on the big issue of the day and you’re likely to trigger a backlash. That’s obvious. Everyone knows that.
Today support for impeachment is dramatically higher. Most polls show it has a very small plurality support. Some polls have shown support for it just over 50%. Clearly the public is highly and intensely divided. But there is no reason to believe the reaction will be anything like it was in 1998/99 for the very simple reason that the public’s take on it is radically different and support is dramatically higher. This is truly obvious.
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