In the turmoil of 21st-century American politics, the greatest danger comes in wrongly applying the lessons of the past to a constantly changing present. This is playing out in the debate over how best to challenge Donald Trump. Whether the argument is over impeachment or over the best candidate to defeat him in 2020, there is a pitched battle between those urging a cautious, measured approach, and those pushing for institutional and ideological confrontation.
Team Caution often reinforces their argument with history. Electorally, they cite the catastrophic defeats of George McGovern in 1972 and Walter Mondale in 1984 to warn of another landslide loss to Republicans. In Politico, former NPR reporter Alan Greenblatt darkly warns that nominating a progressive challenger “steers a course too far from the country’s center of political gravity to win.”
On impeachment, journalists and Democratic leadership alike reference President Bill Clinton’s impeachment in 1998 by Newt Gingrich and the Republican House, which served only to make Clinton seem persecuted, increasing his popularity. In a typical article of this genre, historian Jeffrey Engel notes that “nobody comes out looking good” from impeachment. “All the leaders of the Republican leadership who went after Clinton found themselves resigned or disgraced or both.”
It’s not at all clear that either of these historical parallels is relevant to 2019. Establishment Democrats’ purported certainty uses far too few data points to make uncertain predictions. The surprise nomination and election of Donald Trump in 2016 should by itself be reason to doubt those who claim the authority to understand the politics of our moment. In an era of Trumpism on the right and rising Democratic socialism on the left, the broad swing electorates of the 1980s and 1990s who focused on comity and compromise have been replaced by voters who favor authentic-sounding politicians and bold action to solve mounting problems.
In the case of impeachment, the example of Bill Clinton is particularly problematic. The Gingrich/Ken Starr–led attack on the presidency was an overreaching, nakedly partisan act, mismatched to an age with far more persuadable voters who were turned off by Republican zealotry. Second, it was an era of relative peace and prosperity. Old hippies were becoming Wall Street day traders; the cost of education, health care, and housing had not yet skyrocketed beyond reason; and America’s biggest mainstream culture wars were over V-chips in remote controls.
In this context, Americans sided with whoever seemed to be less aggressively confrontational. Further, Bill Clinton’s underlying crime of lying about sex was seen as trivial: The greatest offense was taken to be the sullying of the White House with an affair, or that children were (supposedly) learning about oral sex from news reports. Only the retrospective gaze of the #MeToo movement has properly contextualized Bill Clinton as a predatory villain and Monica Lewinsky as a victim.
We now live in a very different era culturally and politically, faced with an entirely new category of presidential lawlessness. First and foremost, impeachment isn’t merely a political consideration: As Greg Sargent notes, it’s a matter of moral imperative regardless of the political consequences. Given what was revealed in just the redacted Mueller report, the gaze of history will not look kindly upon a Democratic Party that so clearly shirks its moral and constitutional duties. Even if it’s true that Senate Republicans will refuse to convict—and it is—future generations are unlikely to forgive House Democrats for using such an excuse to avoid impeachment.
The caution might be forgivable if the political consequences were more certain. But there is no guarantee that pursuing impeachment would carry a negative political backlash, and many reasons to believe that failing to impeach might be more detrimental to Democratic electoral chances in 2020.
There have never been fewer persuadable voters in the electorate than in today’s hyperpartisan political environment. Base turnout demands voter enthusiasm, and the base will be more enthusiastic about their party’s politicians if they are seen as putting up a fight against their opponents. While polling on the issue has been scattershot, some evidence suggests a clear majority of Democrats want to impeach the president, plus a growing number of independents.
Perhaps more importantly, there is ample evidence that the few swing voters who remain in the electorate are more motivated by populist anger than “can’t we all just get along?” anti-partisanship. Studies have shown that, while swing voters may decry partisan anger, they can’t stop being angry themselves. It makes sense: Suburban Romney voters who crossed over for Clinton because they found Trump distasteful have only moved farther from him in the years since. Many Obama–Trump crossovers in the upper Midwest now regret their decision and voted accordingly in the 2018 midterms. Those voters didn’t swing to Trump in the first place because they wanted to vote for someone nice. Insofar as it wasn’t for deplorable reasons, they desired a strong and forceful leader to shake things up. Democrats who shrink from holding impeachment hearings out of political caution will not endear themselves to voters who long to change the status quo.
Trump, meanwhile, is unlikely to garner sympathy for what he calls a political witch hunt. Welcoming Russian help in his campaign, campaign-finance violations to cover up multiple trysts with adult film stars, payoffs to tabloids to spike stories, and open corruption and obstruction of justice are not relatable actions. Further legal and congressional investigations are very likely to expose even more criminal wrongdoing, in particular about the Trump Organization’s business practices. An impeachment inquiry would likely damage Trump month after month with damning revelations. Plus, Trump’s own caustic personality, combined with authoritarian impulses and promises to prosecute his own FBI investigators for treason, will immunize him from sympathy from anyone but his already devoted base. Indeed, while more polling may be necessary to confirm the finding, at least one poll shows that in the wake of the redacted Mueller report, Trump’s approval has cratered to a record low 37 percent.
It’s also worth noting that, in spite of the conventional wisdom that Republicans suffered badly as a result of impeachment, George W. Bush won the following presidential election—or at least got close enough to take it.
Similar arguments apply to the Democratic presidential nomination. In 1972 and 1984, conservatives were on the upswing, aided by a Southern strategy that gradually realigned racist Dixiecrats into the GOP fold. Democrats wouldn’t win a majority of the popular vote in a presidential election until 1996—and even when they did, anti-government, anti-regulatory orthodoxy held bipartisan sway. Mondale was a deficit hawk who promised to cut spending; the idea that he turned off centrist voters with his ultra-liberal schemes is ahistorical as well.
Again, 2019 is a very different story. Republicans have only won a majority of the popular vote once in the last seven presidential elections. The conservative electoral coalition is shrinking with each passing day. And in 2016, GOP economic orthodoxy couldn’t even survive contact with a anti-free-trade protectionist who promised to protect Medicare, break up the banks, and tax Wall Street traders (none of which has occurred, which only puts Trump in more political peril).
In addition, Donald Trump remains deeply unpopular, mired at or under 40 percent approval, trailing most major Democratic challengers. Even his own allies believe his only path to victorylies in a narrow Electoral College win while once again losing the popular vote. That’s a hard feat to pull off once, let alone twice. Given modern tribalism and the broad unity on the center and left to depose Trump, it seems unlikely that the dynamics of 2020 will bear any resemblance to those of 1972 or 1984, regardless of whom Democrats nominate.
Whether it’s impeachment or the nomination, perhaps the best lesson Democrats can take from late-20th-century history is not to be consumed by defeats long past, but to realize just how different today’s politics are from those that prevailed in the Reagan and Clinton eras. The much more relevant history of the past few years suggests that both fortune and the electorate favor the bold.