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This isn’t Nancy Pelosi’s first impeachment rodeo

With their quest to impeach Trump, Democrats are only hurting themselves. The speaker understands this, even if many in her party don’t

Nancy Pelosi watched Republicans struggle to oust Bill Clinton back in the day. She’s trying to avoid a repeat, Winston writes. (Alex Wong/Getty Images file photo)
Nancy Pelosi watched Republicans struggle to oust Bill Clinton back in the day. She’s trying to avoid a repeat, Winston writes. (Alex Wong/Getty Images file photo)

OPINION — Almost 21 years ago, on Sept. 9, 1998, I was in a room at the Library of Congress at a Republican House leadership meeting as they discussed the fall legislative agenda that would lead up to the congressional elections, less than two months away. The country was already divided as partisans took to their corners over the Lewinsky scandal and the possible impeachment of President Bill Clinton.

Everyone was anticipating that the Starr report might be released in the next couple of days. As I stood next to a wall, I looked out over the long table where the leadership members were seated, with most of the senior leadership staff sitting along the far wall with the windows behind them. It was then that I saw two vans pull up in front of the Capitol. As 36 boxes of reports were unloaded, a Pandora’s box called impeachment opened and I remember thinking, “Everything is about to change.” And it did.

The day after, a Washington Post tick-tock of the previous day’s events led with, “All day long House members agonized about the Starr report. Should it be published? Should it be secret? Could it stay secret? Would it come at the end of the week? Would it come at the beginning of next week?”

Sound familiar? Washington today finds itself in a similar moment with a nation divided, one side determined to rid the country of what they see as an illegitimate president and the other looking at the threat of impeachment as nothing less than a partisan coup d’état. The capital has become a kind of political no man’s land with partisan troops already in the trenches, dug in for battle, as party leaders on both sides warn against opening that Pandora’s box again.

Earlier this month, Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who remembers 1998 and the price Republicans paid for impeachment, made her position clear: “I’m not for impeachment. … 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. And he’s just not worth it.”

The operative word here is “bipartisan.” If Republicans learned a lesson in 1998, when they lost five House seats in a year they should have gained seats, it was that an impeachment process, seen as partisan by a divided electorate, is not likely to favor those pushing for the ouster of a duly elected president. Unless a commander in chief has committed such an egregious and indisputable high crime or misdemeanor that Congress has no choice but to overturn a fair and free election, impeachment is a dangerous path, especially when overheated rhetoric, strident partisanship and a biased media have combined to create a toxic political environment.

Pelosi may have tamped down the legislative fires of impeachment for now, but it is clear her own caucus remains divided on the issue. In fact, many in her caucus made it clear that, the speaker’s views notwithstanding, they intend to push ahead in their efforts to impeach Donald Trump.

Once terms like impeachment enter the lexicon, particularly among base activists and ideological media outlets, it’s almost impossible to walk that back. Members still on the fence, especially new members from purple or Trump districts, will likely feel increasing pressure from their base to get on board the impeachment train. But in supporting impeachment to placate those voters, they may pay a high price by alienating the middle, where their re-election is likely to be won or lost.

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In 2018 exit polls, 39 percent favored impeaching Trump, while 56 percent did not, an important result given how large the overall margin was for Democrats. Those results echo the 1998 exit polls, when 33 percent said Clinton should be impeached and 63 percent were opposed.

Also from the 2018 exit polls, 41 percent thought the Russia investigation was justified, while 54 percent thought it was politically motivated. Forty-one percent approved of Mueller’s investigation while 46 percent disapproved.

More recently, a USA Today/Suffolk University poll, released Monday and conducted March 13-17, found that 50 percent of voters thought the Mueller investigation was a “witch hunt,” while 47 percent did not. Most important, those polled opposed the House impeaching Trump by a 62-28 percent margin, up from its October poll, when voter opposition was at 54-39 percent.

In 1998, Republicans were convinced that pursuing impeachment against Bill Clinton would seal the Democrats’ electoral fate that November. In fact, it sealed their own. Their election strategy was based on one message to voters: Don’t reward Clinton by voting for Democrats.

Republicans didn’t talk about their own economic and legislative accomplishments, which would have helped them win the 20 to 30 seats they were predicting. Instead, they focused their message on Clinton’s personal behavior and gave him the opportunity to take credit for an economy that in large part had been driven by Republican policies, but with his cooperation. This strategic error would haunt Republicans for years to come, as evidenced by Clinton’s speech at the 2012 Democrat national convention where he used the Clinton economy to bolster Obama’s case for re-election.

In Election Day exit polls, President Clinton’s personal favorability remained low, with 35 percent having a favorable view, and an overwhelming 61 percent having an unfavorable view. However, his job approval was a different story, with 55 percent approving and 43 percent disapproving. But within those numbers was a key group of voters who disapproved of Clinton personally but approved of the job he was doing as president. That made up 20 percent of the electorate, who voted Democratic by a 62-35 margin, and Democrats almost took back the House. 

While the trend toward a more sharp-edged partisanship began before the 1998 election, the more personal nature of that campaign had a collateral effect. The vitriol and anger that characterized both sides that year has increased with every election cycle that’s followed.

I suppose some cynics out there might question the speaker’s sincerity, wondering if her anti-impeachment stance is more political posturing than definitive pronouncement. But Nancy Pelosi has been to this rodeo before. She watched Republicans struggle to find an impeachment strategy that voters would understand and accept, and my guess is that she doesn’t want to end up in the same unenviable position.

On Sept. 29, 1998, after Republicans suffered a bad week in the impeachment battles, Washington Post reporter Dan Balz wrote, “House Republicans talked about the problems during a leadership meeting yesterday afternoon. One GOP source said there is now a greater recognition that party leaders must play not only to their most loyal supporters, who want Clinton impeached, but to swing voters who are tired of the scandal and of partisan backbiting in Washington.”

Like the old song says, “Everything old is new again.” Change the partisan references to “Democrats,” and his words would be a perfect description of where the Democratic House leadership finds itself today.

Without clear proof of impeachable offenses, going down the impeachment road is likely to do more damage to Democrats than to Trump. If Democrats continue to investigate and push for impeachment rather than work to keep the promises they made in the last election, their actions are likely to be viewed as purely political, validating the “witch hunt” charge claimed by many Republicans.

This would not only unify the GOP, but also likely shift independents — who want the two parties to work together to solve problems — back toward Republicans. Pelosi understands that, even if many in her caucus don’t. She also understands that, even if articles of impeachment could pass the House, the Senate will never convict.

As we await the release of the Mueller report, just as we waited for the Starr report 21 years ago, one wonders whether cooler heads in the House will prevail this time around.

The answer to that question may well determine the outcome of the next election.

David Winston is the president of The Winston Group and a longtime adviser to congressional Republicans. He previously served as the director of planning for Speaker Newt Gingrich. He advises Fortune 100 companies, foundations, and nonprofit organizations on strategic planning and public policy issues, and is an election analyst for CBS News.