In 1998, Republicans were eager to impeach President Bill Clinton over his affair with a White House intern. They had the goods on him, and they had the troops, boasting a majority in both houses of Congress. Never mind that the public opposed it. They dove in anyway, and they did a painful belly-flop.
If Nancy Pelosi has her way on the matter of President Donald Trump's impeachment, Democrats will err on the side of delay, not haste. She has a long memory and a sense of limits, and both are at work in her rejection of that option.
"Impeachment is so divisive to the country that unless there's something so compelling and overwhelming and bipartisan, I don't think we should go down that path, because it divides the country," the House speaker told The Washington Post. "And he's just not worth it."
Pelosi does not need to punch a brick wall to deduce that punching brick walls is much worse for hands than for bricks. She was serving in Congress in 1998, and she learned from the GOP's failure.
What happened after the House voted to impeach Clinton? The Senate failed to convict him, with several Republicans voting not guilty. His approval rating hit the highest level of his time in the White House. He left office 23 months later with a higher approval number than any departing president over the previous half-century.
Pelosi's declaration won't endear her to the many Americans, particularly in Democratic Party, who think the impeachment clause of the Constitution should carry the Trump brand. Rep. Brad Sherman of California, who introduced an impeachment resolution in 2017, did so again this year. Rep. Rashida Tlaib of Michigan plans to follow suit. Ditto Rep. Al Green of Texas.
On the merits, they are not off base. Trump has been dishonest, destructive and dangerous both in the White House and in his 2016 campaign, and House members should not pretend otherwise.
There are already plausible grounds to remove him. His repeated meddling in the investigation of his campaign's ties to Russia clearly amounts to an attempt to suppress the truth and spare the guilty. No fewer than seven people associated with his campaign have pleaded guilty or been indicted on criminal charges brought by special counsel Robert Mueller.
Except for the longstanding Justice Department policy against indicting sitting presidents, Trump almost certainly would have been charged when his former lawyer Michael Cohen pleaded guilty to criminally violating campaign finance laws. Cohen's crime: paying hush money to Stormy Daniels shortly before the 2016 election "at the direction of a candidate for federal office" — that candidate being Trump.
All this is just part of what is known about the president — who is under multiple investigations, federal and state — that could lead to criminal charges now or after he leaves office. More revelations are bound to emerge in the coming weeks and months, none of which is likely to bathe Trump in a glow of innocence.
But the brutal arithmetic of politics could very well make all this as productive as searching for a unicorn. Republican members of Congress and voters have so far exhibited a bottomless capacity to defend, ignore or excuse anything Trump does. It's highly unlikely, from what is now known, that the Senate would convict. As former Obama White House counsel Bob Bauer speculated on Lawfare, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell might not even allow a trial.
As Democrats ponder their dilemma, two questions should be paramount. First, if the House were to impeach Trump, would there be a decent chance that the Senate would convict him, or that he would resign? If not, would the public generally support it anyway — or would the political backlash be helpful to Trump?
The day may come, as Pelosi allowed, when the public evidence will be so outrageous and undeniable that some in his own party will agree he should be removed. But that day has not arrived.
Impeachment of a president is a political calculation as well as a legal decision. Failing to give both their due weight would be irresponsible. To act before the time is right would be self-defeating. Getting Trump out before his first term ends is desirable; getting him out after one term is critical.
Impeachment is not the hill Pelosi wants Democrats to die on. She doesn't want them to die on any hill. She knows there's a mountain to climb in 2020.
Steve Chapman blogs at http://www.chicagotribune.com/news/opinion/chapman. Follow him on Twitter @SteveChapman13 or at https://www.facebook.com/stevechapman13. To find out more about Steve Chapman and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.