Too Soon for Impeachment?

House Democrats have been resisting pressures from the most intensely anti-Trump part of their party who think impeachment should begin now. Congressional Democrats have instead taken a more institutionalist approach. Using its Article I oversight powers the House has opened an array of investigations by various Committees like Intelligence, Judiciary, and Oversight.

Just last weekend Judiciary Committee Chair Jerrold Nadler remarked, “Before you impeach somebody, you have to persuade the American public that it ought to happen. You have to persuade enough of the – of the opposition party voters.” Nadler’s concerns are supported by the results of a new Quinnipiac poll. 59% of Americans oppose beginning the impeachment process compared to 35% in favor. However fully 66% of Democrats support starting the impeachment process now.

From this poll, Chairman Nadler’s goal of persuading members of the opposite party seems far away.  Only six percent of Republicans favor impeachment now, and just a third think Robert Mueller is conducting a “fair” investigation.

Very different outcomes awaited the two Presidents who have been impeached in my lifetime. Richard Nixon forced to resign his office in 1974 rather than face a Senate trial. Bill Clinton was tried and acquitted by a Senate with a Republican majority. Nixon’s popularity collapsed over 1973; Clinton appeared impervious to his travails.

Public Support for Richard Nixon

This chart plots “net” presidential job-approval (approve minus disapprove) for Presidents Nixon and Clinton using data from the Gallup Poll. To put them on a common time scale, the x-axis measures days elapsed since Inauguration.

Richard Nixon was re-elected President in 1972 with 60.7 percent of the popular vote, and polls taken in the weeks just after the inauguration found about 65 percent approved of Nixon’s performance, while just 25 percent disapproved.  That net approval rating of +40 exceeds Clinton’s own impressive starting position by ten percentage points.  However the public’s honeymoon with Richard Nixon ended quickly and dramatically over the months of 1973, while their love affair with Clinton actually grew stronger.

Just ten days after Nixon’s second inauguration, all seven of the Watergate burglars had either pleaded guilty or been convicted of their crimes.  About a week later the Senate voted 77-0 to create a Select Committee on Presidential Campaign Activities under the chairmanship of Sam Ervin.  The White House tried to slow the pace of events by firing three key advisors, Chief of Staff H. R. Haldeman, Domestic Counselor John Ehrlichman, and White House Counsel John Dean, on April 30th (day 100 in the chart). A few weeks later Dean began his stunning testimony before the Select Committee (day 156) followed by the even more stunning revelation from Deputy Assistant to the President Alexander Butterfield that all Oval Office conversations had been recorded. Legal wrangling over the tapes ended up before the Supreme Court.

The pale red line marks the so-called “Saturday Night Massacre.” On October 20, 1973, Nixon instructed Attorney General Elliot Richardson to fire Watergate Special Prosecutor Archibald Cox. Richardson and his deputy, William Ruckelshaus, both resigned rather than comply with the President’s request, leaving the task up to Solicitor General Robert Bork. Despite Cox’s ouster, it took only eleven days before Nixon was pressured to appoint a new Special Prosecutor, Leon Jaworski.  Nixon’s popularity continued to decline after the Massacre, but not at the astounding pace it had fallen in the months before.

Public Support for Bill Clinton

The contrast between Richard Nixon and Bill Clinton could not be more stark. Clinton’s began his second term with a 30-point margin in net approval. That margin actually increased over his term despite Independent Counsel Kenneth Starr’s repeated investigations. His original remit was the so-called “Whitewater” investigation concerning a real-estate deal in Arkansas. That investigation expanded to include “Travelgate” concerning alleged corruption in the White House Travel Office. Starr even took seriously right-wing claims about the alleged murder and subsequent cover-up of Clinton aide Vince Foster. Starr later concurred with the verdict that Foster’s death was a suicide.

Ultimately, though, Starr’s investigations led him to Clinton’s alleged sexual escapades with Paula Jones and Monica Lewinsky. Starr subpoenaed Clinton to testify before the grand jury, where the President meditated on the meaning of “is.” Starr believed Clinton committed perjury during the grand jury hearing and reported this finding to Congress where it became the basis for the House impeachment proceedings that began on December 19th. To the perjury charge the House later added an obstruction of justice count and sent the Bill of Impeachment to the Senate where a trial began on January 7, 1999.

Despite all this furor, Clinton’s net job-approval rating hovered between +25 and +35 from his second inaugural through impeachment. Ironically, Clinton’s best performance on Gallup’s job-approval question came at the same time as the Senate began to deliberate on the two impeachment counts. Opinion did fluctuate more during the impeachment process, but average net approval remained roughly constant throughout. (If only public opinion mattered, the Republicans’ decision to impeach Clinton makes little sense. Perhaps Republican leaders believed they could hold their caucus together in the Senate, but Clinton’s overwhelming popularity made it easier for defectors like Susan Collins (R-ME) and Richard Shelby (R-SC) to cross the aisle on Clinton’s behalf.

Implications for a Trump Impeachment

If we add Donald Trump’s net job approval, two things stand out right away. While more people disapprove than approve of Trump’s performance in office, he has not reached the depths of unpopularity that we saw when Richard Nixon was President. Second, like “Slick Willie” Clinton, Donald Trump’s popularity seems remarkably impervious to events. In such circumstances, it makes sense for Democratic leaders to take their time pursuing impeachment.  The public is not ready.