Among the stories Democrats tell themselves as they plow ahead with impeachment, one might be called “The Scarlet Letter,” if the title were not already taken. They assure themselves that the simple fact of being impeached by the House of Representatives casts a deep and permanent shame over any president — even one as pathologically shameless as the current occupant of the Oval Office.
This belief in the power of the scarlet “I” is essential to understanding their determination to impeach President Donald Trump even though no one in Washington really believes that two-thirds of the U.S. Senate will vote to remove him from office on the strength of the case as it stands.
What makes this faith particularly interesting is that it flies in the face of real evidence — not from the dusty pages of history but from the lived experience of many figures in today’s politics. More than 50 members of the House were members 21 Decembers ago, when Republicans were stoking the impeachment train to nowhere, despite having less than half of the American public on board. Then, as now, failure in the Senate appeared to be a foregone conclusion. And we heard the same story then about the stain and stigma of the scarlet “I.”
Now, before the hyperventilation begins among the “false equivalency” police, let me say that I fully understand Bill Clinton is not Donald Trump; Monica Lewinsky is not Volodymyr Zelensky; and pressuring Ukraine for political dirt is different from getting caught in a perjury trap sprung by lawyers representing a woman you allegedly sexually harassed. But this column is not about those things. It’s about unpacking the supposed shaming power of impeachment, then and now.
This power, on the available evidence, is pretty weak tea. No doubt, former president Clinton would prefer not to have been impeached by the House and rescued by the Senate, all things being equal. But stigmatized? His scarlet “I” was followed within days by the highest Gallup poll approval rating of his entire presidency. Since then, his life appeared to unfold just as he likes it: a mix of soirees and service, replete with billionaires, movie stars, private jets and proffered honors. His foundation is swimming in money. His presidential library and museum in Little Rock, Arkansas, celebrates his legacy with barely a mention of impeachment.
People who liked Bill Clinton before his impeachment mostly continued to like him afterward, and some who didn’t like him seemed to soften their view. His supporters maintain to this day a sturdy narrative of his victimization by partisan enemies arrayed in a vast conspiracy.
Among the billionaires who have hobnobbed with the post-impeachment former president is one Donald J. Trump, whose third wedding was attended by the Clintons. And though now-President Trump is impervious to instruction from briefing books or long-winded experts, he’s a quick study on matters of sybaritic indulgence and notoriety. It cannot have escaped his notice that former president Clinton, despite his scarlet “I,” has had plenty of people seeking his imprimatur, buying his books, groveling for his attention and stuffing money into his pockets. Surely Trump is confident that people will do the same for him — not all the people, not by a long shot, but more than enough to keep his considerable vanity intact.
I don’t mean to be cynical. In fact, quite the opposite. My principled belief is that impeachment ought to carry great shame and stigma. But I contend for that to be the case, it cannot be a partisan affair; impeachment must be a last resort and an expression of public condemnation that rises above party differences to express a national consensus.
Many Democrats say, justifiably, that national consensus is not possible in this age of alternative facts and ideological echo chambers. Perhaps they are right, but the fact is, we’ll never know. The House majority is proceeding with impeachment without waiting for the courts to resolve Trump’s sweeping executive privilege claims. So whatever further evidence might be hidden behind Trump’s stone wall won’t be available to sway public opinion, even if it could.
Impeachment is becoming too easy. The Constitution intends for it to be an extreme measure — a deliberately difficult process with an intentionally high bar, not merely the reflection of a House majority but enough to command a Senate supermajority as well. Each time the House sends articles of impeachment to an unpersuaded Senate, the scarlet “I” loses a bit more of its bite.
There is a way to express the opprobrium of the House without allowing the Senate to defang the rebuke. A congressional censure of Trump would do all that impeachment is likely to accomplish. It would express the outrage of today while calling on future historians to take note of the censured behavior. At the same time, censure would do more — much more — by restoring power to the scarlet “I.”
David Von Drehle is a Washington Post opinion columnist.