The Lesson of Andrew Johnson


“If we had had confidence that the president clearly did not commit a crime, we would have said so,” Robert Mueller declared last week, as he resigned as special counsel investigating Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election.

In his valedictory, Mueller did not exonerate the president from trying to hinder the investigation. Rather, he explained that to his understanding, “charging the president with a crime was … not an option we could consider.”

Ever since the report came out a month ago, Republicans have been arguing that it is time to move on. And Democrats have been all over the place – some urging new and expanded congressional investigations, some demanding the initiation of impeachment proceedings, and some both. But very few Democrats are willing to move on. And even fewer seem to recognize the trap they are entering into by focusing on a largely symbolic impeachment in the Democrat-controlled House, with virtually no chance of conviction in the Republican-controlled Senate.

Some of the Democratic leadership seems to get it – and have urged the party to focus on fundamental policy differences and candidate character concerns as they march toward the 2020 presidential election showdown. But most don’t. Instead, vocal party advocates seem anxious for an ugly fight that they know they can’t win.

From all outward appearances, President Donald Trump and his supporters welcome an impeachment fight. They see a path that allows them to play victim to the Democrats, and to ride to victory in 2020 after being exonerated in the Republican Senate. History seems to support their view.

There have been two presidential impeachments by the House in U.S. history. And two Senate trials – one of President Bill Clinton and the other involving Andrew Johnson, the Unionist Southerner who succeeded Abraham Lincoln.

According to Brenda Wineapple in “The Impeachers: The Trial of Andrew Johnson and the Dream of a Just Nation,” Johnson was a “vain, vulgar, and vindictive” president who was deserted by Democrats and conservative Republicans. He was impeached in the House. But his opponents fell one vote short of a conviction in the Senate, which resulted in the total deflation of his opposition, which had used up its political capital in the failed conviction effort.

Impeachment is not the path to change. And maybe Mueller had it right. Rather than fight a battle he knew he couldn’t win, he dealt with the realities as he understood them, and did the best he could. He laid out the facts, presented the evidence, made the arguments and let others decide. The Democrats should follow that lead, and let the voters decide. And along the way, both sides need to make the case for leadership — not by crisis, not by fanning fears, but by connecting with the people’s needs and hopes, and by presenting a vision toward a more perfect union.




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