Impeachment and the history of political combat

Why We Wrote This

Impeachment proceedings are obviously fertile ground for partisan discord. You don’t need more explanation of that. Our writers focus on what’s new – and not new – about the divide.

Andy Nelson/The Christian Science Monitor/File
House Judiciary Committee Chairman Henry Hyde (center) listens as votes are tallied for a Democratic resolution for censure of then-President Bill Clinton. The committee voted four articles of impeachment against him.

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Monday’s impeachment hearing in the House Judiciary Committee, at which majority members presented evidence of President Donald Trump’s actions regarding Ukraine, split along party lines.

President Trump’s efforts constitute “a clear and present danger to our free and fair elections to our national security,” said Daniel Goldman, the top investigative counsel for the House Intelligence Committee.

Republicans replied that the majority party had twisted its facts to fit their narrative. “Democrats are obsessed with impeaching President Trump by any means necessary,” said Stephen Castor, a counsel representing the GOP for the Judiciary and Intelligence committees.

The bitter exchange might have sounded right at home in the deeply split politics of the post-Civil War era.

Fierce partisanship is a thread that has been woven into every presidential impeachment in U.S. history. It has shown itself in different ways, and had different effects, in the eras of the Presidents Andrew Johnson, Richard Nixon, Bill Clinton, and Donald Trump.

The partisan discipline of Democrats and Republicans and the shouting and prevalence of the partisan media environment are new and different today. But the sharp party split isn’t unprecedented. In the few impeachment data points the nation has, it’s been always thus.

“The impeachments of Andrew Johnson and Bill Clinton were largely partisan events. ... In the current case, what is being played out is a highly partisan event again,” says former House of Representatives historian Ray Smock.

For years, the president’s political opponents in the House of Representatives had investigated impeachment as a means of removing him from office. It was clear their ideas about the distribution of power in the American system of government, and how it should be used, were fundamentally different from each other on crucial points.

Finally, members of Congress boiled over when the nation’s chief executive took a particularly provocative political action. As they weighed impeachment articles they considered the nature of the president’s aggressive character. One proposal charged him with making, “with a loud voice, certain intemperate, inflammatory, and scandalous harangues” meant to attack Congress itself.

Thus, Andrew Johnson’s formal impeachment began. In 1868, Johnson was impeached in the House and barely survived a Senate trial. The “scandalous harangues” article was included in the charges against him.

Fierce partisanship is a thread that has been woven into every presidential impeachment in U.S. history. It has shown itself in different ways, and had different effects, in the different eras of Presidents Johnson, Richard Nixon, Bill Clinton, and Donald Trump.

The partisan discipline of Democrats and Republicans and the shouting and prevalence of the partisan media environment are new and different today. But the sharp party split isn’t unprecedented. In the few impeachment data points the nation has, it’s been always thus.

“The impeachments of Andrew Johnson and Bill Clinton were largely partisan events. ... In the current case, what is being played out is a highly partisan event again,” says former House of Representatives historian Ray Smock.

The impeachment of Johnson

Monday’s impeachment hearing in the Democratic-controlled House Judiciary Committee, at which majority members presented evidence about President Trump’s actions regarding Ukraine, split along party lines.

Democrats said the president had obviously abused his powers of office by pressing Ukraine to announce investigations helpful to his reelection efforts. President Trump’s efforts constitute “a clear and present danger to our free and fair elections to our national security,” said Daniel Goldman, the top investigative counsel for the House Intelligence Committee, to the Judiciary panel.

Republicans replied that the majority party had twisted its facts to fit their narrative and abused their own powers of process in pursuing the president.

“Democrats are obsessed with impeaching President Trump by any means necessary,” said Stephen Castor, a counsel representing the GOP for the Judiciary and Intelligence committees.

The bitter exchange might have sounded right at home in the deeply split politics of the post-Civil War era.

Johnson – a rare border state Democrat who had remained loyal to the Union – was inclined to be more lenient toward the South, and less supportive of rights for freed slaves, than were the Radical Republicans in Congress.

The conflict ignited when the cantankerous Johnson fired his secretary of War without consulting Congress, as required under a law called the Tenure of Office Act (later found unconstitutional). The House impeached him. Moderate Republicans saved him, with a margin of one vote, in his Senate trial.

The whole process was quite convoluted, say House historians. Rep. Thaddeus Stevens, a bitter antagonist of the president and chair of the House Reconstruction Committee, drove much of the process, taking it out of the hands of the Judiciary Committee.

The dispute was really about many more things than its stated impetus. At heart it was about whose vision for Reconstruction of the South would prevail.

“They didn’t like Johnson because he was Johnson, and because he wasn’t following any plan,” says Dr. Smock.

The Watergate era

More than a century later, the impeachment inquiry into Nixon, a Republican, occurred in very different political circumstances.

In the early 1970s the Democratic Party had regained the strength it had lost in the Civil War era, to the point where it controlled both the House and Senate for years. But both parties were much more mixed than they are today. Moderate and conservative Southerners still constituted a significant portion of Democrats. Moderate Republicans, many from the Northeast, remained a Washington force.

In Congress “everybody was less partisan,” says Laura Blessing, a senior fellow in the Government Affairs Institute at Georgetown University.

That included the House Judiciary Committee, the panel that ended up driving much of the Nixon impeachment process.

The House vote to begin the initial Nixon inquiry in 1974, notes Dr. Blessing, was 410 to 4. Many Republicans were fine with beginning an investigatory process. But they resisted the notion that what the president had done constituted impeachable offenses.

The “Smoking Gun” tape, which revealed the extent of a long-running cover-up, caused GOP defenses to crumble. Recognizing the inevitable, Nixon resigned.

The impeachment of Clinton

“The Nixon impeachment, at the very, very end, wasn’t really partisan,” says Sarah Binder, a professor of political science at George Washington University.

The Clinton impeachment, however, was.

“Clinton, it was pretty partisan, whole thing,” says Dr. Binder.

It began with a wide-ranging investigation by independent counsel Ken Starr, touching on Mr. Clinton’s involvement in the Whitewater land deal, the firing of the White House Travel Office staff, and alleged mishandling of FBI files.

For Mr. Starr, these were dry holes, says former House historian Dr. Smock.

“Once the Lewinsky scandal broke, they shifted away from what they didn’t find to the crime of perjury for lying about sex in a grand jury,” says Dr. Smock.

By this time, the Great Sorting of American politics was well underway, with Southern conservatives moving to the GOP and Republican moderates switching to the Democrats. Furthermore, Republican House Speaker Newt Gingrich pushed the political advantages of confrontation with Democrats. Impeachment seemed like a political winner in that context, even if the Senate would not vote to remove.

House historians contrast this political context with that of President Ronald Reagan and his Iran-Contra affair. Despite clear evidence of an administration that deliberately disobeyed congressional direction, genial Democratic House Speaker Tip O’Neill, a House lifer and institutionalist, seemed to have little interest in impeachment as a political tool. (No evidence ever surfaced that Reagan knew the extent of secret arms sales to Iran and covert funding of the Contra rebels, the central charges of the scandal.)

In the wake of the Big Sort

Today the Big Sort has largely finished, and the parties are much more ideologically distinct than they were in the mid- to late-20th century. That makes their conflicts sharper, and in Congress, makes it easier for party leaderships to control votes and enforce party discipline over largely like-minded troops.

With the Trump impeachment inquiry, that’s become even more obvious as the proceedings have moved from the relatively controlled environment of the House Intelligence Committee to the slam-bang roller derby of the Judiciary, a committee populated by “ready-to-rumble folks,” says Casey Burgat, a resident senior fellow in the Governance Project at the R Street Institute.

“They’ve become more party-line supportive than they were 100 years ago,” says Dr. Burgat.

One other big difference affecting the partisanship surrounding the inquiry is the media environment. Conservative talk radio, Fox News, and social media news aimed at all parts of the political spectrum have created a loud, opinionated, inescapable national conversation.

Fox News barely existed at the end of the Clinton impeachment, noted Brian Balogh, a historian at the University of Virginia, during a special impeachment-themed broadcast of the BackStory history podcast.

But if Fox News had existed during the 1970s presidency, it’s likely Nixon would not have had to resign, Dr. Balogh said.

“I do think we are operating in a very different world and I do think the existing of that partisan allegiance, at least going into this impeachment, means it’s going to be a lot harder for folks to change their views,” Dr. Balogh said.

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