As House Democrats consider impeaching President Donald Trump, some have looked to the 1998 impeachment of President Bill Clinton for guidance. In truth, however, there are few similarities between the two cases.
First and foremost, Clinton was a popular president while Trump is not. In January 1998, Gallup had Clinton’s approval rating at 58%; by the fall, it was 66%. Trump, in contrast, has never had an approval rating over 50% and currently stands at 42% with Gallup.
Relatedly, the men who investigated these two presidents were seen in starkly different terms. Independent counsel Kenneth Starr, a Republican investigating a Democrat, was widely perceived as a partisan. According to an April 1998 poll, 56% of Americans thought Starr’s goal was “hurting Clinton politically” while just 32% thought he wanted “to find the truth.” By late 1998, polls showed that almost 60% of the public disapproved of his work.
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By contrast, special counsel Robert Mueller, a Republican investigating a Republican, has not been seen as a partisan. While public attitudes have been mixed, Mueller’s net approval has remained positive throughout the inquiry, and the public has seen his work as a worthwhile cause. According to a March CNN poll, only 38% of respondents said the Mueller probe was “mainly an effort to discredit Donald Trump’s presidency” while 56% said it was “a serious matter that should be fully investigated.”
Second, as those poll numbers suggest, the charges levied against the two presidents were not comparable. Starr was appointed to investigate the Clintons’ failed Whitewater real estate deal from the late 1970s. After several years, Starr found no wrongdoing on Clinton’s part and shifted attention to the president’s perjury about a consensual sexual affair with a former White House intern.
Mueller did what he was supposed to
Mueller’s investigation, meanwhile, stayed focused on its mandate of Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election and yielded significant results. Over nearly two years, the former FBI director and his aides secured indictments, convictions or guilty pleas from 34 individuals. Notably, that list included several high-profile figures in the president’s orbit, including Trump’s former campaign Chairman Paul Manafort, Trump’s former Deputy Campaign Chairman Rick Gates, Trump’s former national security adviser Michael Flynn and Trump’s personal lawyer Michael Cohen, who implicated the president directly in his guilty plea regarding hush-money payments to a porn star.
Although Mueller was constrained by Department of Justice guidelines against indicting a sitting president, his final report nevertheless laid out 10 instances in which evidence suggested the president committed obstruction of justice, among other misdeeds.
A third difference between the past and the present is that House Republicans failed to present an effective case against Clinton, assuming that the Starr report had done their work for them. They called for impeachment on the campaign trail, but voters proved uninterested. While House Speaker Newt Gingrich predicted that Republicans would pick up 10-40 new seats in the 1998 midterms, his party lost five seats instead. Humiliated, Gingrich resigned from the speakership.
House Judiciary Chairman Henry Hyde proceeded with impeachment hearings during the lame duck session in December 1998 but scaled them back significantly. Unlike the dramatic hearings on the Watergate scandal, which over the course of several months made the case against President Richard Nixon and his men, through a patient presentation of evidence and gripping testimony from key figures, the hearings on Clinton’s impeachment were rushed through in just a few days and dismissed by a public that had already grown bored.
Impeachment hearings are important
The case for Clinton’s impeachment was weak to begin with, but House Republicans failed to realize that impeachment hearings offered a chance to convince the public of its necessity. Public opinion can be changed. Soon after the Senate select committee on Watergate launched its famous televised hearings in May 1973, for instance, only 19% of Americans thought Nixon should be removed from office. The televised hearings convinced more and more Americans that the president needed to resign or be removed.
That is one lesson House Democrats should draw from the Clinton saga. They cannot assume that the Mueller report has made the case on its own, especially now that the president and his attorney general have repeatedly misrepresented its conclusions. If Democrats decide to proceed with impeachment, they should make the case in clear and compelling terms.
(Many have noted that our media landscape is more fragmented today than it was in Nixon’s or even Clinton’s era and have argued that televised hearings would not make a difference today. But cable news would be consumed by a Trump impeachment, and Trump would surely be consumed by it, too.)
A second important lesson from the Clinton impeachment saga is that impeaching a president in the House but failing to secure conviction in the Senate is not the political loser many Democrats think it is. To be sure, Clinton’s approval rating rose as a result of the failed impeachment effort, but the impact was short-lived and isolated to him alone. Despite predictions that they would be punished at the polls, Republicans took back the presidency in the 2000 election and kept control of both houses of Congress.
In the end, if House Democrats believe that the president has committed impeachable acts, then they have a duty to launch impeachment hearings, full stop. Worrying about the political costs is not only a dereliction of their duty, but also a misreading of our history.
Kevin M. Kruse, a professor of history at Princeton University, is the co-author of "Fault Lines: A History of the United States Since 1974." Follow him on Twitter: @KevinMKruse
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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Democrats need to get past impeachment jitters. It's not 1998 and Trump is no Clinton.