Monday, February 3, 2020

Impeachment: A Historian's Take

Pay attention to the media today and one is bound to hear a great deal of what Biden might call "Malarkey" or Trump would call "Fake News" on the Historic meaning of Impeachment.  The New York Times, for example, assures us that History's judgement will be that Trump has a "stained record"...  In fact, no pundits of the right or left are able to render a genuine historical perspective on the Trump Impeachment.  History, by definition, takes time.  Time for secrets to be spilled, time for partisan passions to cool.  It is quite simply absurd to expect fair historical judgements from the likes of Sean Hannity or Rachel Maddow -- these are partisan hacks that feed their viewers only on verdicts that conform to and confirm their political prejudices.  Balanced verdicts on the Trump Impeachment of 2019/2020 will not be written for, at a minimum twenty years from now.

With that caveat disposed of what can History teach us about Impeachment?  The answer is shockingly obvious and hardly ever mentioned by the media gurus:  IMPEACHMENT HAS ALWAYS FAILED.  In the long history of our Republic the political and constitutional tool of Impeachment has been a colossal flop.  It is a damp squib, a fizzling dud that only makes those who wield it less popular.

Commander Kelly with Andrew Johnson
Raleigh, North Carolina
In 1868 highly partisan Republicans launched a disastrous Impeachment attempt against the highly unpopular Andrew Johnson.  It was passed in the House but Johnson, who had succeeded to the Presidency after Lincoln's assassination, was acquitted by one vote in the Senate.  The political folly of the Johnson Impeachment is amply demonstrated by triumphant election of Ulysses S. Grant ( in November of that same year.  Impatient Republicans only needed to wait for the electorate to   reclaim the White House.  Johnson is today remembered for having been impeached but he was not really stained by the impeachment process; it is, in fact, the radical Republicans who set out to trap him in their partisan web that bear the historic stain of the 1868 Impeachment.  At the end of the day, Johnson, a modestly-talented man at best, was simply a man whose unfortunate and impossible political fate was to be the unelected successor of Abraham Lincoln.

Almost every town in Arkansas has a claim on Bill Clinton

The second US President to be impeached was, of course, William Jefferson Clinton in 1998 during his second term.  Clinton's Impeachment played out much like Johnson's.  In December of 1998 The House of Representatives voted along partisan lines to impeach Clinton but the Senate in 1999 voted also along partisan lines to acquit him.   Newt Gingrich's support for the Impeachment of a popular President was widely seen as a partisan overreach that would up costing Republican House seats in both the 1998 and 2000 elections.  President Clinton was not historically "stained by Impeachment" but rather by his own scandalous actions including perjury.  Newt Gingrich resigned in disgrace from his speakership in November 1998 while Clinton went on to serve out this term of office.  Bill Clinton's lies got him into hot water but it was the Republicans who were historically stained by impeachment and paid the political price.

On February 5, 2020 the US Senate voted by a margin of 52 to 48 to acquit President Trump of the Impeachment charges brought by the House.  It remains clear that a genuine historic verdict on Impeachment is currently unattainable (see above), but it is quite clear that it largely conforms to its two historic antecedents.  It has been an overwhelmingly partisan process.  Not a single Republican voted for the Impeachment of Trump that passed the House of Representatives on December 18, 2019.  Only Mitt Romney defected from Republican ranks in the Senate vote.  Impeachment is and always has been a highly partisan process.  Th Founding Fathers, in their wisdom, made it extremely difficult for the legislative branch to remove a duly elected president.

What is the ultimate historic verdict on the strategy of Impeachment?  It failed in 1868.  It failed in 1999.  Unsurprisingly, it failed to remove President Trump in 2020.

Impeachment: The Gun that Shoots its Owner

Impeachment remains the political gambit that always fails, the weapon always redounds upon those who wield it.  And it is very likely the Democrats that will bear the historic stain and pay the political price in 2020 for the Impeachment of Donald J. Trump.

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