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Lessons For Democrats From Former President Clinton's Impeachment


Winning the 2020 election is front and center as Democrats debate whether or not to pursue impeachment proceedings for President Trump.


MAXINE WATERS: We're going to have to impeach. I just wish it was sooner than later.

ERIC SALWELL: I think we're on the road to impeachment.

KAMALA HARRIS: I believe Congress should take the steps towards impeachment.

BERNIE SANDERS: What I worry about is that works to Trump's advantage.

ELIZABETH WARREN: There is no political inconvenience exception to the United States Constitution.

CORNISH: Those in the party striking a note of caution are often looking to the impeachment of former President Bill Clinton in 1998.


CHARLES GIBSON: President Clinton has been impeached. The House of Representatives today approved two of the four articles of impeachment, accusing him of perjury and obstruction of justice.

CORNISH: The 42nd president became the second president in history to be impeached, but it came at a high price for congressional Republicans. To fully understand how the impeachment hurt Republicans politically, you have to go back to the midterm elections of 1998, says New York Times correspondent Peter Baker.

PETER BAKER: So Republicans woke up on the morning of the election in 1998 thinking they were about to have a big win. Speaker Gingrich got on a phone call with his colleagues. He predicted a 25 to 30 seat gain for Republicans. And yet by the end of that night...


LINDA WERTHEIMER, BYLINE: Democrats picked up five seats in the House of Representatives in yesterday's elections. Were voters sending a message on impeachment?

BAKER: And it had a real ripple effect in the party. It caused the downfall of Speaker Gingrich. He had to resign. And it caused a real upheaval within the Republican Party as to whether they were going in the right direction or not.

CORNISH: So going back to that day when the House votes on articles of impeachment, you actually have Clinton coming out - right? - and trying to address the situation in real time.

BAKER: Oh, it was a very dramatic day. The new speaker of the House, Bob Livingston, had just surprised everybody by announcing that he, too, would resign on the floor of the House because he had had extramarital affairs that were being exposed.


BOB LIVINGSTON: I can only challenge you in such fashion if I am willing to heed my own words.

BAKER: And there was a bombing campaign that was going on at that very moment over Iraq. And so there was all this extraordinary things happening in Washington that day. The House votes to impeach.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: The ayes are 228. The nays are 206. Article I is adopted.

BAKER: And the president is afraid there would be a momentum toward pressuring him to resign the way Bob Livingston, the new speaker, had just done. So they pile House Democrats into buses and drive them down Pennsylvania Avenue to the White House where they gather on the South Lawn and they stand with President Clinton.


RICHARD GEPHARDT: We've just witnessed a partisan vote that was a disgrace to our country...

AL GORE: Disregarded the plain wishes and goodwill of the American...

GEPHARDT: The American people deserve better than what they've received.

BAKER: You know, the president came out and he said that he had done things that were wrong but that he did not think that impeachment was the right course of action. He planned to fight to the end of his presidency.


BILL CLINTON: It's what I've tried to do for six years. It's what I intend to do for two more until the last hour of the last day of my term.

CORNISH: How did the way Clinton responded help maintain his support?

BAKER: Clinton did two things, one that's pretty close to what Trump does today and one that was not. The first was to make it as partisan as possible.


CLINTON: We must get rid of the poisonous venom of excessive partisanship.

BAKER: So instead of just being about President Clinton's conduct, he assailed the investigator, Ken Starr. They assailed the Republicans for going after him because that's the way you keep Democrats in his case on his side. And he knew as long as he kept his party on his side that he couldn't be convicted in the Senate. In effect, that's what President Trump is doing today, too.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: We just went through the Mueller witch hunt where you had really 18 angry Democrats that hate President Trump. They hate him with a passion.

BAKER: He's attacking the investigators, attacking the Democrats for going after him. He's trying to make sure that Republicans stay loyal to him because as long as Republicans stay loyal to him, he also can't be convicted in the Senate. The one major difference is that President Clinton tried to leave that to others. He tried to say I'm above all this and focused on what matters to you. I'm not going to get descended into the muck. Present Trump has no problem, you know, hanging around the muck. I mean, he's much more comfortable engaging in the fight directly, not just leaving it to surrogates.


BAKER: And he has not spent his time focusing on other issues.

CORNISH: Are there alternatives to impeachment, right? Is an alternative just investigating all the time or censure? What else are you hearing?

BAKER: Sure. Yeah. There are alternatives, but there's not a lot of them, and they're not always satisfying, I think, to people who are involved in the system. In the Clinton era, they contemplated something they call censure, which would be a vote by one or both Houses of Congress saying we denounce the president's actions in these cases. The other possibility, which is what you're seeing right now, is kind of the continual investigation - subpoenas, hearings, testimony - without necessarily leading toward an ultimate vote. That has its own impact, obviously, because it creates a constant atmosphere of conflict and disclosure. But it may not necessarily have to lead to a formal impeachment inquiry.

CORNISH: So I guess these are the words we should be listening for as we head into 2020.

BAKER: Yeah. I think that, you know, what you see right now is kind of an impeachment inquiry without the name, right? You see them holding hearings and issuing subpoenas and soliciting testimony without actually calling it an impeachment inquiry. And the question is whether this sort of quasi impeachment inquiry turns into the real thing at some point.

CORNISH: Peter Baker is the chief White House correspondent for The New York Times. His book on Bill Clinton's impeachment is called "The Breach." Thanks so much for talking with us.

BAKER: Oh, thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.