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What History Can Teach Democrats About Impeachment

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Like Representative Rashida Tlaib, Bella Abzug was not one to mince words in the course of political combat. In 1973, as the murk of Watergate engulfed Richard Nixon, the feisty Democratic congresswoman from New York punched Speaker Carl Albert in the chest, in his account, and told him: “Get off your goddamned ass, and we can take this presidency!”

As today, the Watergate era was a time of generational and stylistic change in the House of Representatives. Younger red-hot liberals saw impeachment as a necessary and urgent course of action, while wary elders viewed it as a drastic, politically toxic remedy. In 1973, the task of managing these two camps fell to Majority Leader Thomas P. “Tip” O’Neill Jr., whose deft navigation of the Nixon impeachment process could serve as a blueprint if Speaker Nancy Pelosi and congressional Democrats decide to proceed with a case against President Donald Trump.

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Like Pelosi, O’Neill, a wheel horse from a liberal district in North Cambridge, Massachusetts, was no fan of losing. And, like Pelosi, he could count. The constitutional requirement for impeachment is formidable: a majority in the House and two-thirds of the vote in the Senate. Although Democrats had majorities in both chambers of Congress during Watergate, O’Neill understood that a successful impeachment campaign would have to enlist Republican support—in the country and in Congress. To do so, it had to have credibility and an aura of impartiality.

When Tlaib last week told a crowd of cheering supporters, “We’re going to go in there and impeach the motherfucker,” Democratic strategists winced. The Republican prosecution of President Bill Clinton, after all, largely failed in 1999 because the impeachment process was seen by the public as a rash and partisan act. “Come on! I get the anger, but is this helpful?” tweeted David Axelrod, adviser to former President Barack Obama and other top Democrats, after hearing of Tlaib’s comments. “No it’s not,” he added.

So it was in 1974. As the year began, the Senate Watergate Committee was continuing its investigation; a new special prosecutor, Leon Jaworski, was battling Nixon in the courts over access to White House tape recordings; and the House was proceeding toward impeachment hearings. Yet Nixon had been reelected in a historic landslide in 1972, winning 49 states, and the “smoking gun tape” that would prove his complicity in the scandal had not been made public. Pluralities, but not majorities, supported impeachment in the polls.

“The best hope for Nixon now to escape,” the veteran Time congressional correspondent Neil MacNeil wrote to his editors in a file for a February cover story, “is for the congressional Democrats to give Nixon the chance to argue that this is a partisan, Democratic attack. … O’Neill knows this as well as anybody.”

Nixon’s staff read the cards the same way. “All that we do … must have one purpose and only one purpose: to discredit the work product of the House Judiciary Committee—to show that it has no impeachment case—that it is partisan motivated … and that the impeachment agony must rest on their shoulders,” Nixon aide Ken Khachigian wrote in a memo to the White House chief of staff, Alexander Haig. “We cannot allow the articles of impeachment to be enshrined in respectability and legitimacy. They are producing a bastard product of dubious parentage conceived in clandestine backroom trysts.”

And so, whenever Abzug and the New Left liberals in the Democratic caucus champed at the bit, O’Neill pulled back on the reins.

Liberals in the House had started pushing for impeachment the previous summer, 1973. As the Watergate Committee was holding its hearings, Representative Robert Drinan—a Jesuit priest who represented a liberal suburb of Boston and was sometimes called “the Mad Monk”—introduced a resolution of impeachment. Drinan based his measure on Nixon’s conduct of the Vietnam War and the secret bombing of Cambodia. The congressman was morally outraged by the suffering in........

© Politico