Nic Rae

Nicol Rae, dean of the College of Letters and Science, at Montana State University in Bozeman.

America may be entering an age when impeaching the president becomes merely symbolic.

In the impeachments of both President Bill Clinton and President Donald Trump, “nobody really believes it’s going to succeed, but they do it for other reasons,” said Nic Rae, dean of Montana State University’s College of Letters & Science.

Rae, a political scientist and co-author of the 2004 book “Impeaching Clinton: Partisan Strife on Capitol Hill,” spoke Friday at the Wonderlust Friday Forum. A packed crowd of about 100 people attended the talk at the Bozeman Public Library.

The Clinton impeachment book focused on the Monica Lewinsky affair and the question, Rae said, “Why, if public opinion was overwhelmingly against it, did impeachment happen?”

The authors concluded that “the Clinton impeachment was symbolic of an increasingly polarized America,” Rae said. Nearly 20 years later, it’s clear that partisanship hasn’t abated and has become, he said, “the outstanding characteristic of American politics.”

To reach the two-thirds voted required for impeachment is very hard, Rae said. “You need an overwhelming national consensus. It’s unlikely in the contemporary hyper-partisan atmosphere.”

Rae recounted the history of impeachment, going back to England in the 17th century. Royal opponents in Parliament couldn’t oust the king, but they could go after the king’s ministers by impeachment, which sometimes ended in beheadings.

Impeachment was included in the U.S. Constitution to deal with the problem of a tyrannical or law-breaking president. The House can impeach for treason, bribery and “high crimes and misdemeanors.” Then the Senate holds a trial to decide whether to convict and remove the president from office.

President Andrew Johnson, who’d angered Republican supporters of strong civil rights for freed slaves, was impeached after the Civil War for trying to remove President Abraham Lincoln’s war secretary without congressional approval. Johnson came within one vote of being ousted.

President Richard Nixon resigned before he could be impeached by the full House for his part in an illegal cover-up of the Watergate burglary at Democratic headquarters. The House Judiciary Committee passed three articles of impeachment for obstructing justice, abuse of power and contempt of Congress for refusing to comply with subpoenas.

Clinton became the second president to be impeached in 1998 when the Republican-led House voted 258-176 to impeach him for lying to a grand jury and obstructing justice by trying to find a job for Lewinsky.

Though more than 60% of the public opposed removing Clinton, Rae said, the Senate held an impeachment trial. Senators voted 45-55 on the first count and split 50-50 on the second, far short of the 67 needed to convict.

Rae said he later interviewed Republican leader Sen. Trent Lott. Both Lott and Democratic leader Sen. Tom Daschle had been very concerned that damage would be done to the Senate by lurid discussions of the Lewinski affair, so both sides worked to find a way to hold the trial but avoid making it a spectacle. Lott “was very proud” of how it was conducted, Rae said.

The reason impeachment happened, despite public disapproval, was that since 1974 both houses had become more polarized, Rae said. House Republicans and fired-up GOP primary voters demanded a trial. Most represented “safe” Republican districts. It was safer for Republicans to vote for impeachment, he said, and safer for Democrats to vote for acquittal.

The impeachments of Clinton and Trump, the third president in American history to be impeached, result in part from “a sense of duty on the part of the ‘out’ party to register disgust in the incumbent.”

Rae said impeachment could end up “like crying wolf,” undermined to the point that when the country faces “really, really serious threats,” presidents will engage in more abusive conduct because they won’t take the threat of impeachment seriously. It might become, he said, “just another weapon in partisan warfare.”

Gail Schontzler can be reached at gails@dailychronicle.com or 582-2633.

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