What, pray tell, constitutes a “partisan” outcome? Most people would define it as an outcome that breaks either mostly or fully along party lines — like, say, the vote to impeach Donald Trump in December. No Republicans voted for it, and two Democrats voted against it (Reps. Collin Peterson and Jeff Van Drew), with Van Drew changing party affiliation afterward.
Isn’t that precisely what Joe Biden warned against in 1999, George Stephanopoulos asked on ABC’s Good Morning America? After playing video of Biden warning about impeachments based entirely on brute-majoritarian force, Biden insisted that his warning doesn’t apply … because this isn’t “partisan” by Biden’s definition of the term:
When pressed by @GStephanopoulos over comments he made during 1999 impeachment trial of Pres. Clinton warning against impeachment votes along party lines, Biden pushes back, saying the facts make it clear that Pres. Trump has violated the Constitution. https://t.co/rqU9jLkZ3W pic.twitter.com/E3DTCMSa9v
— ABC News (@ABC) January 31, 2020
STEPHANOPOULOS: If a partisan impeachment was wrong in 1974, wrong in 1998, why isn’t it wrong now?
BIDEN: ‘Cause it’s not a partisan impeachment. He violated the Constitution. Period.
STEPHANOPOULOS: Only Democrats voted for it in the House and one independent.
BIDEN: Well, that doesn’t mean that the facts, the underlying facts, George, whether the Constitution’s been violated. That’s the issue. That’s the issue, and — was the Constitution violated? Period.
STEPHANOPOULOS: Even if it’s a party-line vote?
BIDEN: Even if it’s a party-line vote. It just reflects on those who know, in fact, in their heart and their head that in fact its a violation of the Constitution to do what he did, and in fact vote no. That’s a party-line vote but it doesn’t make it right. A party-line vote that doesn’t relate to a constitutional violation is a different thing.
Ahem. Biden’s 1998 argument was in service to defeating an impeachment of a president who had committed actual statutory crimes, namely perjury and obstruction of justice, both felonies. In this case, the first article doesn’t even specify a crime or an explicit “constitutional violation,” just an “abuse of power.” The second article on obstruction assumes that any exercise of executive privilege in the face of a House investigation automatically violates the Constitution, even without first challenging that exercise in court.
Biden’s point in 1998 — and it wasn’t a bad one even then — is that Congress should refrain from using impeachment unless a large, bipartisan consensus of its necessity emerges. Otherwise, it erodes confidence in the institution itself and makes it appear like a plaything for party politics. That consensus existed in 1974, and it didn’t in 1998. Congress should have looked for another option to deal with Clinton, Biden was arguing in 1998, and they should have looked for another way to deal with Trump now — especially since they’ve been talking impeachment ever since his election and alienating Republicans all along the way.
There has been no end of hypocrisy in Washington regarding Ukraine-Gate from both sides, but this is one of the most bald observations of it yet. It’s entirely nonsensical, and very much entirely self-serving, and so obviously so that it beggars belief. It’s precisely why 1998 Biden warned about pursuing partisan impeachments — and how they corrode the political process. Too bad 2020 Biden is taking a more partisan interest this time around. Slightly more, anyway.