An impeachment battle is coming to Capitol Hill–but history shows it might not help the congressional leaders pushing it, including those with presidential aspirations.
If the House quickly moved on impeaching President Donald Trump and sends the matter to the Senate, you can expect Democratic presidential hopefuls like Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, Kamala Harris, Cory Booker, Amy Klobuchar and even Michael Bennet to try to box each other out and claim the spotlight. But they might not be able to make as much political hay out of it as they might expect. While history shows impeachment battles weaken the White House, the legislators who lead the fight on Capitol Hill don’t get rewarded either.
Take the fight over impeaching President Andrew Johnson in 1868 for example. Sure, Johnson was weakened by the impeachment battle and it helped doom his bid for the Democratic presidential nomination that year. But Johnson was in bad shape anyway. As the one Southern senator who refused to join the Confederacy and one of the most prominent War Democrats, Johnson was saved from political obscurity by being picked as President Abraham Lincoln’s running mate on the National Union Party’s ticket in 1864. Lincoln was hoping having Johnson as his understudy would help balance the ticket. In theory, Johnson, an old Jacksonian Democrat, would boost Lincoln, a former Whig turned Republican. But, of course, after Lincoln was assassinated, Johnson’s handling of Reconstruction turned the GOP against him. Johnson would survive the impeachment effort but it didn’t boost his political chances which were slim enough to begin with.
But if the impeachment fight didn’t help Johnson, it also failed to boost the Republicans who wanted to oust him from the White House. Ohio Senator Ben Wade helped lead the charge against Johnson and he thought it would help him gain the Republican presidential nomination in 1868. But Wade and other Republicans were left in the dust by war hero Ulysses S. Grant whose simple “Let us have peace” slogan appealed to a nation trying to heal from the Civil War and tired of the drama in Washington. Wade wisely pulled out of the race before the Republican convention which nominated Grant by acclimation. Going on to be elected president, Grant, who opposed Johnson but wasn’t one of the leaders in the effort to remove him, emerged as the big winner of the impeachment fight.
The same thing happened more than a century later with President Richard Nixon. Congressional Democrats like Sam Erwin, Father Robert Drinan and even Barbara Jordan and Pete Rodino weren’t the big winners from Watergate. Nor were Nixon’s men. Pardoning Nixon would cost President Gerald Ford the 1976 election. Al Haig went on to a rocky stint at State Department and a disastrous presidential bid in 1988. Nixon defenders in Congress like Charles Sandman were thrown out of office or bowed out of politics like Charles Wiggins did. The ultimate beneficiary of Watergate was Jimmy Carter, a former Georgia governor who offered a sharp contrast to both Nixon and the congressional Democrats who wanted to oust him.
Fast forward a quarter of a century later. President Bill Clinton wasn’t the big winner when the GOP impeached him in 1999 after the findings of the Starr Report. But the likes of Newt Gingrich, Henry Hyde, Bob Barr and Florida’s own Bill McCollum didn’t exactly gain from it either. Now some of the House impeachment managers gained retrospect–namely Charles Canady, who followed through with a term limits pledge in 2000 and currently leads the Florida Supreme Court where he has been over a decade, and Lindsey Graham who often went his own way on impeachment. George W. Bush–who promised to restore honor to the White House after Clinton and who stressed he wasn’t like the Republicans in Washington–proved to be the big winner when the smoke cleared on the impeachment fight.
History doesn’t exactly bode well for Trump. Johnson and Clinton might have survived their impeachment battle but both were left very bruised. Even if Trump wins a second term, he will a tough time getting his agenda through Congress. He wasn’t able to do much there even when the GOP controlled both ends of Capitol Hill and that’s only gotten worse now that Nancy Pelosi holds the gavel.
But history offers little comfort for most of the leading Democrats hoping to take on Trump next year. Joe Biden might get a boost in the short run but he will get caught up in the Ukrainian mess. Senate Democrats like Warren, Harris and Sanders will also end up looking bad in the impeachment fight.
Based on how Grant, Carter and Bush did after impeachment fights, Democrats would be wise to consider an outsider for the presidential candidate. The pickings are pretty slim in the current field. Montana Gov. Steve Bullock hasn’t gained much traction. Neither have former congressmen like Beto O’Rourke, John Delaney and Joe Sestak. Marianne Williamson and Andrew Yang have their followers but it’s near impossible seeing the Democrats turn to either of them.
All of this leaves Pete Buttigieg. The South Bend mayor has defied gravity so far in his presidential bid and he occupies a strange place between the top candidates and the underdogs. If he plays his cards right–and that’s a big if–Buttigieg might be able to benefit as his rivals for the Democratic nomination and Trump engage in a food fight and voters get fed up and look for someone from outside the Beltway. Lost in all the hoopla as the latest round of polls show Warren leading in key states and even across the nation has been Buttigieg creeping up again. For example, he slipped past Harris to take fourth in the latest national polls from Quinnipiac University and Emerson University. Buttigieg also jumped Harris in the latest Monmouth poll of New Hampshire. He might be in decent position to take advantage of Biden, Harris, Sanders and Warren getting dragged down in the mud in an impeachment fight.
Regardless of who is up and who is down in the polls, history shows outsiders–not the sitting president or the congressional leadership–gain the most from impeachment fights. Trump’s defied history before of course but this could be a situation where he and his main opponents, despite their respective bases cheering them on, all end up looking bad to voters who simply will have had enough.
Kevin Derby wrote this analysis. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.