INDIANAPOLIS – If the act of legislating is considered “sausage making,” a reference to the often disgusting casing of meat into intestinal links, then the process of impeaching an American president is more like casu marzu (maggot cheese), Filipino century eggs or Kopi luwak.

Impeachment is an American tragedy with messy, unsatisfactory outcomes and an array of unintended consequences. Presidential defenders like Indiana U.S. Rep. David Dennis in 1974 can find themselves betrayed by President Nixon. Fierce loyalists like U.S. Rep. Earl Landgrebe and four of his colleagues would go down to defeat that year. 

In some cases, civic emotions can run to the extreme, with Indianapolis rioting and a Hoosier killed in an 1868 street gunfight when President Andrew Johnson attempted to defend himself and assail his congressional rivals on his disastrous “swing around the circle” tour. In the case of the Clinton prosecution, Republicans reacted with hyper-sensation while the general public didn’t give a rat’s ass.

Eight presidents, beginning with John Tyler in 1842, have faced the prospect of impeachment without results, including Presidents Grover Cleveland, Herbert Hoover, Harry Truman, Ronald Reagan, and George H. W. Bush. Three presidents – Johnson in 1868, Richard Nixon in 1974 and Bill Clinton in 1998 – have had articles drawn and voted. In two out of three cases that extended into U.S. House committee votes, it occurred without the majority support of the American people. Both Johnson and Clinton were indicted in the House and faced a Senate trial, and both were acquitted, Johnson by a single vote just months before he was due to leave office over a law that has since been deemed unconstitutional. Clinton prevailed by a 55-45 vote on a perjury article and 50-50 on an obstruction article.

Impeachment today is not attainable or achievable, though there are echoes decades-old that ring familiar bells.

Former Republican U.S. Rep. Steve Buyer, one of the House case managers in the Clinton impeachment, described his stomach as roiled after the Senate acquittals, but describes the dilemma that some Democrats feel today. “The possibility that a future president may commit more egregious acts than perjury or obstruction of justice and then demand party loyalty to defend himself against impeachment is the precedent,” Buyer said. “We had a duty to search for the truth.”

And U.S. Sen. Richard Lugar, who offered up a censure of President Clinton as a compromise, observed, “I believe the crimes committed here demonstrate that he is capable of lying routinely whenever it is convenient. He is not trustworthy.”

Like the Johnson impeachment that found Indiana’s senators split – Democrat U.S. Sen. Thomas Hendricks voted to convict on three articles; Republican U.S. Sen. Oliver P. Morton voted to acquit – that occurred once again in 1999.

“Clearly the president’s behavior was wrong,” said Democrat U.S. Sen. Evan Bayh on one of his first votes in the Senate, splitting with Sen. Lugar. “Clearly it was immoral. Clearly his actions fall far below the conduct Americans should should expect from their chief executive. It is not enough that I question his morals, his character or his veracity. In the end, I am compelled to vote against conviction because the exacting standard for presidential removal has not been met, the heavy burden of proving any defendant’s guilt beyond a reasonable doubt has not been carried, and the national interest in maintaining the separation of powers, a stable presidency and the sanctity of elections require it.”

This fall, Americans may once again be watching the spectacle of impeachment. More than half of the U.S. House Democratic caucus supports the impeachment inquiry.

Earlier this month, House Democrats began the process against President Trump. “The unprecedented corruption, coverup, and crimes by the president are under investigation by the committee as we determine whether to recommend articles of impeachment or other Article 1 remedies,” House Judiciary Chairman Jerry Nadler (D-N.Y.) said. “The adoption of these additional procedures is the next step in that process and will help ensure our impeachment hearings are informative to Congress and the public, while providing the president with the ability to respond to evidence presented against him.”

This comes after Special Counsel Robert Mueller said during congressional testimony in July, “The president was not exculpated for the acts that he allegedly committed. We, at the outset, determined that, when it came to the president’s culpability, we needed to go forward only after taking into account the Office of Legal Counsel opinion that indicated that a sitting president cannot be indicted.”

When Mueller was pressed by Colorado U.S. Rep. Ken Buck, a Republican, asking “Could you charge the president with a crime after he left office?” Mueller responded, “yes.” Buck asked again, “You could charge the president of the United States with obstruction of justice after he left office,” to which Mueller responded again, “yes.”

So while most Hoosier Republicans quickly claimed President Trump was thoroughly vindicated, the reality is something else. But the other component of such a reality is that Trump is safe from impeachment. In fact, he would probably greatly benefit politically from the process.

At this point, according to Politico, 146 Democrats and one independent (Rep. Justin Amash of Michigan, a former Republican), favor impeachment or an inquiry, including U.S. Rep. André Carson of Indianapolis. There are 89 Democrats who are currently opposed, including U.S. Rep. Pete Visclosky of Merrillville. There are zero Republicans who support the process, either in the House or the Senate. 

Carson explained in July, “Congress must continue to use every tool at our disposal to hold (Trump) accountable, including opening an inquiry into his impeachment, and ultimately ensuring this type of dangerous, foreign interference never happens again. The future of our democracy depends on it.” 

Even if enough Democrats support and pass Trump’s indictment in the House, there is zero chance he would be convicted in the Senate.

Thus, this is an overtly political exercise with little chance of legal ramification.

An August Monmouth Poll revealed 59% of Americans are opposed to impeachment, while 35% support. Only 39% of independents and 8% of Republicans back the impeachment process. Not all Democrats are on board, with just 72% backing impeachment. That 28% opposed includes House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who fears a Trump impeachment could be his ticket for reelection in 2020. “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. And he’s just not worth it,” Pelosi said, though she adds that Trump is unfit for the presidency “ethically, intellectually, and politically.”

Lessons from 1998-99

Pelosi should look no further that the 1998 election in Indiana to understand the potential boomerang. With House Republicans building up a truncated process, Democrats actually prevailed in the mid-term elections that year, with the party retaking the Indiana House, while Evan Bayh picked up the Senate seat vacated by the retiring Dan Coats. The Republican U.S. Senate majority remained unchanged at 55-45. Democrats actually picked up five seats in the U.S. House when, typically, a party in a president’s sixth year is gashed. 

“We’re going to take the country back, we’re going to take the Constitution back,” promised Democratic strategist James Carville on NBC’s “Meet the Press” in December 1998. “The retribution is going to be at the polling place.” The reality there is that George W. Bush would win the presidency in 2000 with congressional majorities.

Buyer was offended that Clinton was hell-bent on retaking the House for the Democrats in 2000 in a fit of retribution, saying with some irony given the present day context, “He has always attacked someone else. He likes to play the victim.”

Several Hoosier Republicans took the Clinton impeachment judiciously and not just by party line support. U.S. Rep. Mark Souder (now an HPI contributor) “agonized” over votes on the four articles of impeachment. He would vote for two of them. “You start to add these things together, then there’s a pattern that’s impeachable, rather than a single event,” he explained back in 1999. But he felt like the process was unreasonably expedited. “We were in such a cotton-pickin’ rush to send this case over that we didn’t build a case.” Nor was there a national constituency for it. “If our attitude is ‘our way or the highway,’ we reinforce the image that Republicans are dividing the country. We need to figure out how to bring the country together.” Souder would end up with a primary challenger in 2000, though he was easily renominated and reelected.

After Clinton survived the Senate vote, his peak job approval, 73% in Gallup, occurred that same week and he remained popular during the final two years in office. TIME columnist Michael Kinsley observed, “The most significant political story of the year is that most citizens don’t seem to think it’s significant that the president had oral sex with a 22-year-old intern. Yes, yes, and he lied about it. Under oath. Blah blah blah. They still don’t care. Rarely has such an unexpected popular consensus been so clear. And rarely has such a clear consensus been so unexpected.”

In the Feb. 18, 1999, edition of the Howey Political Report, our final analysis was this following the Senate acquittal: There was so little emotion throughout the 13 months of the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal. Hoosiers – with the exception of Buyer and (Rep. Ed) Pease – seemed detached. There were no demonstrations of support. The only fits of public expression came after Clinton bombed Iraq on the evening of the House impeachment vote, but they were hardly sustained. Hoosiers seemed more interested in the federal government’s showdown with Microsoft than it did with the Clinton impeachment. In the end, Lugar and Bayh perfectly embodied the state. Both were quiet during the proceedings and didn’t seek out the TV cameras and talking head shows. When it came down to the final hour, it was Lugar who finally emerged to eloquently express the outrage so many Hoosiers felt in their hearts but were too busy with day-to-day lives to express beyond their own dinner tables. Bayh was a Democrat embarrassed and disgusted – with his own president – but ultimately didn’t want to upset the applecart.”

1974 fallout

Like 1998, there was fallout at the ballot box in 1974, coming in dramatic fashion. Like this year, Democrats were roiled and angry about President Nixon’s CREEP campaign and the 1972 break-in of the Democratic National Committee offices in the Watergate complex. Nixon attempted to stave off and stonewall the Democratic Congress.

But there were two huge differences. First, Nixon had a key aide, John Dean, who testified in sensational manner before Congress about how a “cancer” was afflicting his presidency. In a contrast for Trump, there was that letter by a cowardly “anonymous” staffer in the New York Times a little over a year ago. Second, there was the Saturday Night Massacre in October 1973 when Nixon fired Special Counsel Archibald Cox. That resulted in the firing and resignations of Attorney General Elliott Richardson and deputy William Ruckelshaus of Indiana while producing a firestorm of national controversy. Nixon’s approval plummeted to points even worse than President Trump’s current range in the 40% range.

Nixon had an array of Hoosier defenders. The key one was Rep. David Dennis of Richmond, who sat on the House Judiciary Committee and voted against articles of impeachment. Before the House could vote on the impeachment resolutions, Nixon released on Aug. 5, 1974, the so-called “smoking gun tape” that revealed his complicity in a coverup after the U.S. Supreme Court ordered him to release the audio files. Dennis was one of a number of Republicans who shifted into the impeachment camp, saying that Nixon had “destroyed his credibility.”

Other Hoosier Republicans stuck to their guns. U.S. Rep. Earl Landgrebe of Valparaiso was a staunch Nixon defender, saying after the Watergate congressional hearings, “Don’t confuse me with the facts.” After Nixon released the smoking gun tape, Landgrebe said on Aug. 7, 1974, “I’m going to stick with my president even if he and I have to be taken out of this building and shot.” They didn’t have to shoot Landgrebe, as Nixon resigned the next day.

In November 1974, Republicans paid a severe price. Indianapolis Mayor Richard Lugar would lose his challenge to U.S. Sen. Birch Bayh, and Republican U.S. Reps. Landgrebe (to Floyd Fithian), William Bray (to David Evans), Roger Zion (to Philip Hayes), Dennis (to Phil Sharp), and Bill Hudnut (to Andrew Jacobs Jr.), would all lose. It was one of the biggest mid-term party losses in Indiana history.


In October 1998, this writer appeared on a Bulen Symposium panel at IUPUI with Michael Tackett, an Indiana Daily Student colleague then with the Chicago Tribune and now with the New York Times. I had mentioned the Monica Lewinsky scandal and the potential for President Clinton to be impeached as potential impacts on the mid-term elections. Tackett gently chided: “Brian Howey is the only one up here talking about impeachment.”

Which demonstrates the unpredictable nature of impeaching a president. Sometimes the sway of events takes politics into unknown territory. With impeachment gaining steam in the following weeks, not only would Democrats here in Indiana and nationally actually pick up seats, but by December the entire political establishment was roiled in impeachment fever. The collateral damage was immense: Republican Speaker Newt Gingrich had been deposed; his successor, Robert Livingston, held the post briefly before resigning in disgrace over an exposed extramarital affair. And Livingston’s successor, Dennis Hastert, would eventually be exposed for sexual misconduct as a young high school coach years earlier.

Oval Office oral sex with an intern had set off a chain reaction that culminated in the trial and acquittal in February 1999. In this context, there was a young former congressional candidate turned talk show host, Mike Pence, who continually told his readers, listeners and viewers that the president of the United States had to set the moral compass for the nation. And Republican lawmakers criticized President Clinton as a serial liar.

These are the ancient precursors to today’s drama, with a preview of what may come playing out on Capitol Hill Tuesday when Corey Lewandowski testified before the House Judiciary Committee. CNN reported it this way: “On one hand, Lewandowski – despite openly antagonizing House Democrats and preening for his Republican cronies – testified fairly casually about misconduct by President Donald Trump that, in normal times, would be presidency-defining (and potentially presidency-ending). On the other hand, Lewandowski’s testimony changed little about the longer-term prospects of impeachment.”

Politico Playbook observed, “It’s impossible to truly make an informed judgment or assessment about how House Democrat Judiciary hearing with Corey Lewandowski went Tuesday, because no one has any idea what the party’s end goal is. The party is so deeply divided on what they should do next that, to many Dems, it all seemed like a circus without a clear purpose. So, at the moment, many Democrats feel listless, hapless and lost on this subject. Trump, meanwhile, has found a strategy with little immediate downside: His aides and former aides are either not showing up for congressional hearings or, in Lewandowski’s case, stonewalling and appealing directly to Trump, because, why not? ”

The Trump antagonists on the New York Times editorial board observed Wednesday: “The muddled messages are creating their own problems and threatening to undermine the push for presidential accountability. The contradictory statements make Democrats look divided and conflicted, complicating efforts to build public confidence in their oversight powers. Rep. Tom McClintock, a Republican, has mocked the Democrats’ strategy as, ‘You can have your impeachment and deny it, too.’”

And last week, it was Rep. McClintock who issued the most daunting and taunting thing when it comes to school yard melees and impeachment: The double dog dare. “Resolve that the House authorizes the Judiciary Committee to conduct an inquiry into the impeachment of the president,” McClintock said. “It’s that simple. I dare you to do it. In fact, I double dog dare you to do it. Have the House vote on those 18 words and then go at it. Why won’t you do that?”

Beyond Speaker Pelosi, House Democrats are flirting with disaster if they impeach President Trump. There is no chance for a Senate conviction unless new allegations are borne out and verified and they would have to be utterly sensational in nature to find any cross-party traction (and we’re watching closely the DNI whistleblower complaint that the Washington Post reported today involves Trump and a foreign leader). An impeachment would have the potential to overshadow the coming party nominee for president and saddle him or her with exterior baggage and a process beyond the nominee’s control. A majority of Americans already view Washington as inert, tribal and continually swampy, believe the country is on the “wrong track” by a wide margin, and a one-party circus would do little to instill any faith in the process.

Presidents Nixon and Clinton faced impeachment during their second terms. President Johnson had already decided not to seek a full term in 1868. Americans in this day believe they have a remedy for a president not up to the task, unable to tell the truth or compromised by a foreign leader, and that is the ballot box in November 2020.