Democrats debating whether to impeach Donald Trump may be misreading the evidence from the last time the House tried to remove a president.
It’s become conventional wisdom—not only among Democrats but also among many political analysts—that House Republicans paid a severe electoral price for moving against Bill Clinton in 1998, at a time when polls showed most of the public opposed that action.
But that straightforward conclusion oversimplifies impeachment’s effects, according to my analysis of the election results and interviews with key strategists who were working in national politics at the time. While Republicans did lose House seats in both 1998 and 2000, Democrats did not gain enough to capture control of the chamber either time. And in 2000, lingering unease about Clinton’s behavior provided a crucial backdrop for George W. Bush’s winning presidential campaign—particularly his defining promise “to restore honor and dignity” to the Oval Office.
Matthew Dowd, a senior strategist for Bush’s 2000 campaign, told me that Democrats today “are learning the wrong lessons” from Clinton’s impeachment by neglecting to consider how it shaped both election cycles, especially the presidential race. In January 2001, almost exactly two years after House Republicans defied public opinion to impeach Clinton, the GOP controlled the White House, the House, and initially the Senate. (Within months, the Republican Jim Jeffords of Vermont would switch parties, shifting control to the Democrats.) “Having gone through all that,” Dowd said, “I think the Democrats are way too skittish on impeachment.”