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.
Read: A Republican explains why Clinton was guilty and Trump is not
“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.”