As more Democrats push to impeach President Trump, MSNBC journalist and author Steve Kornacki said some on the left are misinterpreting the impeachment of President Bill Clinton in the late 1990s.
“I think there's a wishful strain of thinking out there among Democrats … [that] Republicans impeached Clinton and then they won the  election because of it. I think they won the election in spite of it,” Kornacki, who has researched the 1990s rebuke of Clinton, said in an interview on “The Long Game,” a Yahoo News podcast.
This week the House of Representatives held a preliminary vote on impeaching Trump that failed to pass but gained the support of 95 Democrats, up from 66 last year and 58 in 2017.
With former special counsel Robert Mueller set to testify next Wednesday on Capitol Hill, talk of impeachment is bound to increase.
Ron Brownstein wrote in the Atlantic last month that Democrats who are fearful about political blowback to impeachment have oversimplified the lesson of Clinton’s impeachment, and that while there was political blowback in 1998, there were numerous auxiliary benefits in the 2000 election created by impeachment, namely the ability to focus the country on Clinton’s character and shape the public consciousness about him.
“There’s considerable evidence that the struggle actually helped the GOP; at worst, its political impact was equivocal,” Brownstein wrote. “Which means that, on impeachment, House Democrats may have more leeway than they believe to do what they think is legally and morally right.”
Kornacki, however, is skeptical after diving into the history of Clinton’s impeachment by the Republican-controlled House in 1998, while writing his book, “The Red and the Blue.” The book, released last fall, tells the story of the rise of Republican Newt Gingrich in the 1990s as sparking the “nationalization of politics” in America.
It was “the decade when Americans chose sides,” Kornacki said. “Part of the nationalization of politics is, neither side is capable — we're all human — of passing up winning the day, winning the week, winning the month. … And it just escalates.”
In 1998, the country knew Clinton had committed perjury by denying under oath that he had had an extramarital affair with White House intern Monica Lewinsky, and a majority of Americans favored censure by the House. But they did not want the House to impeach Clinton, and they certainly didn’t want the Senate to convict him and remove him from office, Kornacki said.
“In terms of impeachment, it was at least two to one against,” he said. The message most Americans were sending in polling, he said, was “drop it.”
And so Republicans announced their impeachment inquiry just before the 1998 midterm elections, and then fared miserably. Gingrich had expected to add as many as 30 seats to his House majority, but instead the GOP lost five seats.
Gingrich was pushed out of the speakership and replaced by Rep. Dennis Hastert of Illinois, and the Republicans rushed through impeachment rather than drawing it out.
“They wanted out of it real bad,” Kornacki said. “What’s not appreciated is, they course-corrected.”
The candidacy of George W. Bush, Kornacki said, helped the GOP recover from their impeachment woes. Bush didn’t benefit politically from impeachment, he said.
Now, Kornacki said, circumstances are slightly more inviting for Democrats to pursue an investigation that might lead to impeachment proceedings. “The country is not as clearly opposed to impeachment,” he said.
“You'll find a lot of opposition there, but when you ask that follow-up question, ‘Should they keep investigating?,’ you actually find a lot of support now. That wasn't the case in ’98,” he said.
But he cautioned against the notion that impeaching Trump would give Democrats a head of steam heading into the 2020 election. Plus, he added, “the timeline’s all different.”
It’s important to remember, he said, that Republicans impeached Clinton two years before the 2000 election, whereas now the process Democrats want to pursue would place an impeachment proceeding in the House all the way into next spring.
“I start to even wonder if there is a lesson from the Clinton one, because you're talking [now] about an impeachment process ending in the spring, maybe, of a presidential election year,” he said.
And impeaching Trump during the heat of a presidential election, Kornacki said, may be a political gift to this president.
“I wonder if he does do best in these moments of just high-stakes maximum pick-a-side polarization, and what's more of that than impeachment?”
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