Updated at 11:57 a.m. ET on June 16, 2019.
When Republicans voted on impeachment more than 20 years ago, Nancy Pelosi was right there on the House floor, watching as the GOP plunged headfirst into the process without broad public support or the clear prospect of conviction in the Senate. For many establishment Democrats of a certain age—say, those who are now eligible for Medicare—the lesson from that time is clear: Impeaching Bill Clinton was a bad idea that hurt the presidency, the country, and most of all, the House Republican majority.
How Pelosi handles the growing calls from her caucus to begin removal proceedings against Donald Trump will illuminate the degree to which she herself believes that lesson. But as she struggles to manage pressure from roughly a quarter of House Democrats, interviews with some of her old friends and colleagues, and others who were in the trenches of the Clinton impeachment battle, offer a window into Pelosi’s reluctance to pull the pin on that particular grenade just yet. For now, she seems to be keeping her options open, waiting to see whether Congress can unearth new allegations that might shift public opinion.
“I know Nancy, and I know that she’s thinking to herself and saying, Goal No. 1 here is beating this guy,” said former Representative Tom Downey of New York, who has been close to Pelosi for years. “Once you do impeachment, that’s all we’ll do. It will dominate the news, back and forth.”
“I think it was a disaster for the Republicans,” said former Representative Barney Frank of Massachusetts, who was a senior member of the House Judiciary Committee and a fierce Clinton defender at the time of the impeachment vote, in December 1998. “I was strategizing about how I was going to defend the unpopular position of not impeaching Clinton” when the Republicans decided to move ahead, Frank told me, bringing the GOP under widespread attack “for being too partisan, for destabilizing the country, for being antidemocratic.”
Drew Hammill, Pelosi’s deputy chief of staff, told me she was too busy to talk about her own takeaways from the Clinton impeachment. But the House speaker has hardly kept her broader views a secret, making it clear that she prefers to have the relevant House committees continue their investigations into Trump’s potential misdeeds, and pressing the courts for access to documents and witnesses as needed in the face of the White House’s stonewalling. She hasn’t totally ruled out impeachment, but unlike some of her colleagues, she has been wary to commit. “Well, it’s not off the table,” Pelosi told CNN’s Manu Raju on Wednesday. “I don’t think you should impeach for political reasons, and I don’t think you should not impeach for political reasons. It’s not about politics. It’s not about Democrats and Republicans. It’s not about partisanship. It’s about patriotism to our country.”
What Pelosi surely has in the back of her mind is how, in the ’90s, impeachment essentially put an end to the GOP policy agenda. “Their brand became impeachment,” said Jake Siewert, who was the deputy press secretary in the Clinton White House when the House Republicans voted on articles of impeachment. “That’s all they were known for. It actually elevated the loudmouths in their party because they were the ones who went on TV.
“To the extent the GOP had a policy agenda—which they had, in the wake of the ‘Contract With America,’ as a party of ideas—it just became an anti-Clinton party,” Siewert added. “I think that, in and of itself, was a heavy price to pay.”
There are important legal and political differences between 1998 and today. Then, the special prosecutor Kenneth Starr, operating under different authority from Robert Mueller, showed nothing close to Mueller’s circumspection in his final report on the Lewinsky affair. Indeed, against the guidance of some of his own advisers, Starr delivered what amounted to a count-by-count indictment of Clinton to Congress, which even a majority of House Democrats voted to release to the public in its entirety, sight unseen. The immediate effect was that more than 65 major newspapers called on Clinton to resign, with the Los Angeles Times denouncing him as “a middle-aged man with a pathetic inability to control his sexual fancies.”
But the ultimate reaction to the numbing litany of lewd details in the report was an overwhelming public backlash against Starr and the Republicans, which was only exacerbated by the release of Clinton’s own videotaped grand-jury testimony, in which he largely came off as a steady and sympathetic responder to the prosecutors’ relentless questioning.
The biggest lesson of the Clinton impeachment proceedings—the one that is surely not lost on Pelosi—is the purely political one: They didn’t ruin the public’s opinion of the president.* As my colleague Ronald Brownstein explained recently, when the Republicans voted to remove Clinton, public support for impeachment, at about 35 percent, was roughly the same as it is now for impeaching Trump, about 40 percent. And Clinton had much greater public support than Trump does—a roughly 60 percent approval rating, compared with Trump’s 40 percent. Following the Senate’s acquittal of Clinton by a wide margin, the president’s overall approval rating remained at about 60 percent through the rest of his time in office.
Brownstein has argued that the political damage to the Republicans has been overstated in hindsight. That yes, the party lost five House seats in the 1998 midterm elections (the first time since 1834 that a second-term president had gained seats in a midterm during his sixth year in office, as Brownstein notes), and another two in 2000, but it still retained control of the House majority. What’s more, Republicans won the presidency two years later, in part, on the strength of George W. Bush’s pledge to “restore honor and dignity” to the Oval Office. However, as Downey told me, that argument understates the essential narrowness, even the luck, of Bush’s slender win. After all, he lost the popular vote to Al Gore, prevailed by just 537 votes to win in contested Florida, and ultimately took office after a one-vote victory in the Supreme Court.
“I believe the Democrats’ goal generally is to defeat Trump, so the political [reality], in my view, has got to govern, and I think for Pelosi, it does,” said one veteran Democratic lawyer involved in the Clinton impeachment, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of their continuing work for the Clintons. “The minute Trump was impeached, there’d be a Senate trial set in one month, and a vote three weeks after that. He could say, ‘They charged me, and I’m cleared.’ Better, I think, to go the ballot-box route,” the lawyer said. “If he wins, you can move forward with impeachment in a second term. But I really think the final lesson, for me, is you move forward now, you really are going to be handing Trump a victory at the worst possible time.”
Frank echoed that thought. “What Pelosi starts with,” he said, “is, We’re not getting rid of Donald Trump, so what is the effect of a very partisan impeachment? The outcome would be as partisan as it was in the Clinton case, and I think that motivates Nancy … I think Pelosi realizes there are better issues that can dominate” Democrats’ offensive against Trump, such as the economy and health care. She also likely realizes, Frank told me, “that impeachment will be a problem for Democratic candidates—not everywhere, but in districts that are in the middle.”
What is all but impossible to convey to anyone who was not in the thick of the action 20 years ago is the surreal nature of the whole impeachment process. In the middle of his Senate trial, Clinton delivered his annual State of the Union address to a packed joint session of Congress, making no mention of the storm enveloping him and instead pledging to use some $2.7 billion of a projected budget surplus to buttress Social Security.
“Clinton was an entirely different guy” from Trump, recalled Carol Browner, who was the administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency in those days. “In the middle of the impeachment fight, he didn’t take the bait. The order of the day was to just keep doing your job.”
Siewert said the cadre of Democrats pressing Pelosi for a quick move to impeachment risks jeopardizing the party’s broader appeal. “Congressional Democrats are still new to power,” he said. “They don’t have a strong, publicly defined policy agenda at the moment, so if the party spends the next year just trying to impeach the president, that risks becoming what the party stands for.” Perhaps Pelosi worries that will become all it stands for.
* A previous version of this story mischaracterized Clinton’s approval rating on the day the House GOP impeached him.