Julia Azari | Marquette University
Is presidential impeachment legal or political? In the age of Trump, the political answer usually seems like the correct one. House Democrats began an impeachment inquiry in September 2019, but informal discussions of impeaching Trump had been going on for much longer.1 The Republican-controlled Senate not only voted to acquit the president of both charges but also to proceed without additional witnesses, even as new information came to light during the course of the impeachment.
This essay considers the Trump impeachment at the intersection of two constitutional and political features. Constitutionally speaking, impeachment is ambiguous, leaving few clues about the conditions under which it is to be employed. Political scientist Keith Whittington offers a helpful distinction: some impeachments are about the limits of the office, while others are about the behavior of its occupant. The latter, he argues, is less conducive to a meaningful constitutional debate and instead leads to endless textual interpretation of the impeachment clause language – “high crimes and misdemeanors.”
While much has been written about how partisanship has impeded the impeachment process, some important distinctions need to be made. Impeachment has never not been partisan and political; this was true in the 1860s, the 1970s, the 1990s and in 2020. What has evolved is the nature of the relationship between presidents and parties.
Polarization characterizes much of the contemporary political environment, with adherents to either party finding little to like about the other. However, American political parties do not have organizational strength to match this strong partisanship. A key feature of this weakness is their presidency-centered nature. This means that presidents and presidential candidates serve as the focal point of the party system and control the partisan messaging. It is increasingly difficult for members of Congress to cultivate a personal brand distinct from party, which shifts political power to the president relative to his own Congressional partisans. This focus on partisanship, messaging, and national politics has altered the dynamics of the impeachment process, but I also argue here that it has shaped its effects on the political system.
The Rise of President-Centered Parties
Scholars disagree about the core elements of president-centered parties and about the exact trajectory of their development. One long-standing framework places Franklin Delano Roosevelt at the center of these developments. The growth of the administrative state has put policymaking power in the White House, and the idea of national and ideological parties has heightened the status of presidents as partisan symbols. Roosevelt’s attempts to transform the Democratic Party into a New Deal party, including by his efforts to “purge” the party of New Deal opponents in the 1938 midterms, did not give presidents full control over their parties. However, it did begin the process of allowing presidents to remake their parties, at least superficially, in their own policy images. Since the day of FDR, we have seen presidents consolidate this influence over their parties. We see the manifestation of this historical evolution in the Trump presidency and its hold on the Republican Party.
Others, however, pinpoint the emergence of the president-centered party a bit earlier. Daniel Klinghard observes that as early as the administrations of Grover Cleveland and William McKinley, presidents had begun to cultivate their own distinct bases of support.2 This ended their dependence on political parties for the support necessary to win elections. In the 21st century, the situation has almost completely reversed; presidents have profound influence over their party brand, while members of Congress are bound to the political fortunes of presidents and presidential candidates. This isn’t simply partisanship; it’s partisanship where the terms are heavily influenced by presidents, eroding the independence of the legislative branch.
Although we don’t have enough observations to make a probabilistic argument, it appears that presidents face impeachment crises more often in the party-centered era. After more than 100 years without an impeachment, they have occurred with some regularity. One notable feature of the process is that it seems to occur when the country has already plunged into a legitimacy crisis, often with a component of racial strife. This is perhaps most obviously and severely true in the case of Andrew Johnson. When Richard Nixon faced impeachment proceedings in 1974, the country was already divided over a constellation of “law and order” issues – civil rights, the Vietnam War and counter-culture protests, and transparency and accountability in the executive branch. Trump’s impeachment in 2019-2020 came on the heels of several years of polarization, including worsening racial conflict during the presidency of Barack Obama.3 The Clinton impeachment is somewhat more difficult to fit into this framework, as there was no direct precipitating crisis of racial politics. Clinton, instead, falls into the pattern described by Stephen Skowronek as “preemptive” – presidents who come to office while the other party dominates the national political conversation. These presidents find themselves under additional scrutiny due to their opposition status, and the individualized nature of their political appeals makes them uniquely vulnerable to character critiques.4
The role of partisan rancor cannot be downplayed in the study of presidential impeachments. Partisan polarization has not (yet) created a situation in which presidents are routinely impeached; rumblings about impeaching George W. Bush and Barack Obama never went beyond that stage. But long before the current era, divided government has thus far been a necessary, if not sufficient condition for impeachment.
President-centered parties may have contributed to the increased frequency of impeachments. When presidents embody the cultural values and identities central to one party and anathema to the other, the political costs of impeachment fall.
Impeachment Before Presidency-Centered Parties
The impeachment of Andrew Johnson focused on the limits of presidential power. The first nine articles of Johnson’s impeachment centered on his violation of the Tenure of Office Act. The deeper issue at hand, as Keith Whittington explains, concerned Johnson’s efforts to co-opt the patronage machine through his actions in the executive branch, a practice that the Act was passed to avoid. The other two impeachment articles addressed Johnson’s improper rhetoric, another boundary on the power of the presidency generally. As Whittington observes, the long-term effect of the impeachment was not so much about Johnson’s political career, but rather that “the impeachment became a central venue for the Republicans to articulate and establish their constitutional vision of Congressional supremacy.”5 In other words, the 19th century mode of presidential leadership, which was in many ways political deference to Congress, was preserved for at least the remainder of the century. Johnson’s impeachment also had a policy effect; while it was a narrow victory that left him delegitimized, his vision for Reconstruction survived the process. As Jeffrey Tulis and Nicole Mellow describe, Johnson’s political success in this regard was not limited to his recreation of much of the pre-Civil War power structure in the Confederate states. In addition, Johnson provided an ideological agenda to that political perspective, drawing on an anti-Federalist history of opposition to excessive federal involvement, prewar notions of popular sovereignty and using the “language of the politically dispossessed.”6 In other words, Johnson’s larger political project survived his impeachment, to considerable and damaging impact for African Americans in the South. The fact that Congress impeached him and came so close to removal also had constitutional implications, preserving a balance of power between the president and Congress that Johnson had tried to erode.
The impeachment crisis leading up to Richard Nixon’s resignation also produced policy change. In response to the “imperial” nature that culminated in Nixon’s misdeeds and cover-up, Congress updated federal campaign finance law and passed “sunshine” reforms to enforce greater transparency. These were profound and lasting policy changes; the 1974 Federal Election Campaign Act established the modern campaign finance regime and legislation like the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) was also a reaction to the Watergate abuses of power. Furthermore, these concepts shifted in public discourse. “When Nixon’s crimes came to light, the Watergate scandal crystallized in the public mind the notion that campaign contributions were inherently corrupting.”7 For Nixon’s (incomplete) impeachment, partisan animosity between the president and Congressional Republicans was a necessary condition, but the long-term effects again concerned institutions and transcended the problems of a specific administration.
Parties Become Presidency-Centered: The Clinton Case
The Clinton case stands in contrast with the previous two impeachment situations; no serious policy questions like Reconstruction hung in the balance. Unlike with Nixon, the president’s perceived misdeeds were not broadly deemed sufficient to remove him from office. The incident instead was divisive and trivial, consuming news with lurid details about Clinton’s affair with a White House intern while few saw a realistic possibility that he would resign or be removed from office by the Senate.
A complicated set of events led up to the House impeachment vote in December 1998. After a series of investigations into allegations of sexual misconduct against Clinton, as well as inquiries into other scandals, it revealed that the president had conducted an affair with White House intern Monica Lewinsky. Two of the four articles of impeachment introduced in the House by the Judiciary Committee accused Clinton of perjury because he had denied the affair in written and oral testimony in a grand jury investigation. Because of the dual nature of the story – Clinton was being impeached not for having an affair, but for lying about it – lent itself to multiple frames and narratives about what was going on. Arguments against Clinton included both criticisms of his conduct in the affair and his attempts to cover it up. Clinton’s defenders in his own party claimed that Republicans were inappropriately bringing a private matter into politics, preventing the president from addressing real public policy issues.
Unsurprisingly, partisans in the electorate appeared to follow these cues. A Newsweek poll in December 1998 found 66% of Republicans in favor of impeachment and 65% favoring Clinton’s resignation. By contrast, 80% of Democrats opposed impeachment and 69% opposed the idea of Clinton resigning before a Senate trial.8
The impeachment scandal also contributed to a general environment of cynicism and distrust. Mark Hetherington notes that political trust often reflects economic conditions, and that trust would likely have been higher in the late 1990s if the impeachment and related scandals had not happened. Communication scholars also found that partisanship met distrust in media frames of the situation. Stories that emphasized the impeachment as a partisan stunt by Republicans affected public opinion, making citizens who saw such coverage more favorable to the president.9
In addition to framing choices by traditional media, the Clinton impeachment ushered in the more fragmented and partisan political media environment that characterizes contemporary politics. What was known then as the “new media” – cable news and internet sources – was central in breaking the Lewinsky story. This role for new media was connected to partisan competition; Clinton had hoped to use new forms of media to circumvent more traditional journalism and reach voters directly. But, according to John Anthony Maltese, Clinton’s opponents were also able to effectively use new media, including conservative talk radio and websites like the Drudge Report. Bruce Williams and Michael Delli Carpini argue that the Clinton impeachment signaled an end to the era of “gatekeeping” in political coverage. They identify three key features of gatekeeping: the news media would be distinct from entertainment media; fact would be distinguished from opinion; and experts and political elites would set the agenda for a more passive and disengaged public.10 The way new media functioned during the Clinton impeachment challenged these distinctions, contributing to our current environment in which these roles are very much blurred.11
The Clinton impeachment also left its mark on both major parties. It handed a key talking point to the George W. Bush campaign: a promise to “restore honor and dignity to the White House.” Bush’s story of personal redemption through sobriety and religious conversion contrasted with Clinton’s White House dalliances and quibbling over the meaning of “is.” Bush’s black-and-white approach proved to have impact far beyond campaign rhetoric; the idea that “you’re either with us or you’re against us” became a central idea after the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. Electing a president who relied heavily on simple moral instincts turned out to be consequential. This political reasoning, which made sense as a response to the Clinton years, also shaped the foreign policy and counter-terrorism efforts that shaped the politics of the next decade.
Democrats generally rallied to Clinton’s defense, even while acknowledging that his actions were inappropriate – even indefensible. Because of this partisan defense, Democrats never fully resolved their relationship to the Clintons or their legacy. These questions, as a result, returned in the 2016 election. Fairly or not, Hillary Clinton has continued to be associated with her husband’s actions – and her defense of them. The issue continues to divide Democrats. Last year, New York Senator and former presidential candidate Kirsten Gillibrand stated publicly that Bill Clinton should have resigned as president over the scandal. In the 2020 nomination contest, questions have emerged over former Vice President Joe Biden’s interactions with women, opening questions about his candidacy but not disqualifying the former vice president.
Obviously, the substance of Clinton’s impeachment differed from past cases. Nevertheless, there were serious issues potentially at stake, from presidential conduct in the White House to perjury. In addition, the familiar story of partisan polarization certainly explains a great deal of how the Clinton process unfolded. However, presidency-centered parties are slightly different from simple polarization. Because of the presidency-centered nature of parties by the late 1990s, a good deal of partisan infrastructure, including partisan media, built itself up around the Clinton impeachment. Partisans flocked to alternate frames of the president’s behavior and the motivations behind the impeachment process. In contrast with the aftermath of the Johnson impeachment and Nixon’s resignation, the Clinton impeachment yielded little in the way of policy changes. But the implications of the partisan presidency had been sharpened, and while Republicans in the electorate were not necessarily persuaded that Clinton needed to be removed from office, a Pew study found differences among partisans in the perception of facts about the case. This partisan disconnect, along with media developments, have defined the legacy of the Clinton impeachment.
The Impeachment of Donald Trump
The 2020 GOP represents a step further toward presidency-dominated party. As a result, Trump’s impeachment also created a framing war between Republicans and Democrats, with the former depicting the contest as a “witch hunt” and the latter characterizing the president as dangerous and unfit for office.
Like the Clinton impeachment, the attempt to remove Trump on charges of abuse of power and obstruction of Congress seem poised to be overshadowed by bigger news stories, such as a dramatic election season and an outbreak of a novel strain of virus. But the process revealed the extent to which partisan politics now revolve around Trump. The GOP closed ranks around the president, refusing to hear new witnesses at the Senate trial despite the possibility of new information coming to light. House Democrats found themselves, at least momentarily, defined by opposition to the president.
However, the Trump impeachment also revealed the limits of the party-centered presidency. A lone Republican senator, Mitt Romney (R-UT), voted for Trump’s conviction on one impeachment charge. His was a solitary voice, but a historic first. Before that, no Senator had ever voted to remove a president from his own party. The Democratic Party remains presidency-centered, with the presidential nomination race dominating media coverage and conversation about the direction of the party. Desire to defeat Trump has loomed over the presidential primary, perhaps even defining the candidacy of frontrunner Joe Biden. However, fissures within the party over health care, civil rights, and economic issues have brought substantive concerns to the fore as well. The Trump impeachment has once again revealed the limits of the procedure and the extent to which the presidents now serve as the focal points of partisan politics.
We need more time before we can assess the full political impact of the Trump impeachment. It is possible that the main result will be further expansions of presidential power, with presidents mixing the power of the office with their reelection interests and appealing to foreign governments for assistance. If the Clinton case is instructive, the Republican Party may spend decades trying to contend with the legacy of Trump’s actions, even after the incident has long faded from public concern. The presidency-centered nature of American party politics will likely extend the impact of the impeachment, casting a much longer shadow than either Democrats or Republicans in Congress intended.
- Perhaps the most memorable instance of this was Rashida Tlaib’s January 2019 statement. Aaron Rupar, “New Congress Member Creates Stir by Saying of Trump: ‘We’re Gonna Impeach This Motherfucker!’,” Jan. 4, 2019, Vox, https://www.vox.com/policy-and-politics/2019/1/4/18168157/rashida-tlaib-trump-impeachment-motherfucker.
- Daniel Klinghard, “Grover Cleveland, William McKinley and the Emergence of the President as Party Leader,” Presidential Studies Quarterly 35, no. 4 (2005): 736-760.
- Michael Tesler, Post-Racial or Most Racial? Race and Politics in the Obama Era (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2016).
- Stephen Skowronek, The Politics Presidents Make: Presidential Leadership from John Adams to Bill Clinton (Cambridge, MA: Harvard Belknap, 1997).
- Keith Whittington, “Bill Clinton Was No Andrew Johnson: Comparing Two Impeachments,” University of Pennsylvania Journal of Constitutional Law 2 (2000): 422-465.
- Jeffrey K. Tulis and Nicole Mellow, Legacies of Losing in American Politics (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2018), 90.
- Anthony J. Gaughan, “The Forty-Year War on Money in Politics: Watergate, FECA, and the Future of Campaign Finance Reform,” Ohio State Law Journal 77, no. 4 (2016): 791-837.
- Newsweek poll, December 17-18, 1998. https://www.pollingreport.com/scandal2.htm.
- Dhavan V. Shah, Mark D. Watts, David Domke and David P. Fan, “News Framing and Cueing of Issue Regimes: Explaining Clinton’s Public Approval in Spite of Scandal,” Public Opinion Quarterly 3, no. 3 (2002): 339–370.
- Bruce A. Williams and Michael X. Delli Carpini, “Unchained Reaction: The Collapse of Media Gatekeeping and the Clinton-Lewinsky Scandal.” Journalism 1, no. 1 (2000): 61–85.
- Jeffrey M. Berry and Sarah Sobieraj, The Outrage Industry: Political Opinion Media and the New Incivility (New York: Oxford University Press, 2014).