Back in late September, conservative commentator Bill Whalen argued in Forbes that the House Democrats should seek to censure President Trump rather than impeach and remove him from office. I found his reasoning flawed, primarily because Trump stands accused of a political crime and can’t be trusted to run an honest and legal presidential campaign. This wasn’t a concern in 1998 when Bill Clinton was accused of lying about a personal matter and had already won a second and final term.
Nonetheless, Whalen offered an important reminder about the impeachment of Bill Clinton. The Democrats were firmly opposed to impeaching Clinton over the Lewinsky affair, but they were very supportive of offering an official congressional rebuke of his behavior. Minority Whip David Bonior of Michigan spoke for the party leadership when he went to the floor of the House and said he wasn’t interested in sweeping Clinton’s behavior under the rug. He wanted to censure the president, but the Republicans would not allow a vote on anything less severe than impeachment.
“This House is out of touch. It is out of control. And it is so consumed that they have denied us a chance to vote on one option – the only option – that commands the support of the American people, and that is censure.”
What Bonior was alluding to: for weeks, Democrats in the minority had pushed for a floor vote – censuring Bill Clinton for his behavior and substituting a censure resolution for impeachment articles by sending the latter back to the House Judiciary Committee. The parliamentary tactic was rejected as non-germane; an appeal vote failed and House Democrats briefly exited the chamber in protest.
The Republicans did not want give the Democrats the comfort of condemning Clinton’s behavior without supporting his removal from office, but that doesn’t mean that most Democrats were unwilling to go on the record as disapproving of a president having furtive Oval Office trysts with an young intern and then lying about it under oath.
I think it’s important to remember this in light of how the Republicans are responding to the far more serious charges that are being drawn up against President Trump. One reason the Democrats wanted to censure Clinton was that they acknowledged that lying under oath is not acceptable behavior. Another was that they wanted to support something that would have a deterrent effect on Clinton and any future president who might consider repeating his poor decisions.
I don’t know if people were concerned that Clinton would simply continue to have extramarital sexual relationships in the backroom of the Oval Office. I think most people figured he had been adequately shamed and chastened in that respect, but the Democrats weren’t arguing that he had been within his rights or that his conduct had been “perfect.” They certainly would not have appreciated it if Clinton had suggested this and then tried to monetize the “witch-hunt” with merchandizing stunts.
“Impeachment is bringing out President Trump’s instincts as marketer in chief, as he seeks to turn a perilous, shame-inducing inquiry into an aggressive fundraising and mobilization tool,” Axios reports…
…Recent additions to the Trump campaign’s merchandise store include “Bull-Schiff” t-shirts demonizing House Intelligence Chairman Adam Schiff, and “Where’s Hunter?” t-shirts mocking former Vice President Joe Biden’s son.
The Republicans may or may not privately believe that President Trump has committed an impeachable offense, but I can guarantee that exactly none of them would see it as legal or fair play if a Democratic president withheld a White House visit and military aid from a foreign ally until they agreed to announce an investigation of a likely GOP nominee. For deterrence reasons alone, they ought to be looking for ways to signal their disapproval of Trump’s Ukraine scheme so that no future president believes they can get away with doing something similar.
So far, however, they have been unwilling to even acknowledge that Trump deserves to be censured, let alone request the opportunity to vote on such an alternative measure.
For me, this shows why censure was never really an option. Even if it were offered as a solution, the Republicans wouldn’t take it.