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October 13th, 2019

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What it was like to be a Dem who voted to impeach Bill Clinton

Amber Phillips

By Amber Phillips The Washington Post

Published May 30, 2019

What it was like to be a Dem who voted to impeach Bill Clinton
Today, crossing party lines on impeachment will get you ostracized by your party, as Rep. Justin Amash, R-Mich., knows all too well. Was it always this way?

Twenty years ago, five Democratic members of Congress voted to impeach President Bill Clinton, a member of their own party. Two of those lawmakers said that back then, lawmakers had much more freedom to think for themselves.

"I really don't remember much pressure," said Gene Taylor, a former congressman from Mississippi and the only Democrat who voted for all four articles of impeachment. "I think everyone understood that every single member had to vote their conscience on that, and I think people more or less left each other alone to their own decisions."

Taylor said his decision to impeach Clinton was "remarkably cut and dry" for him: Clinton broke the law when he lied under oath to a grand jury about his relationship with Monica Lewinsky. "We are a nation of laws, and being a lawmaker, I thought it was very important that the president be the one who obeys those laws," he said. "It really was that simple."

Paul McHale, a Democrat from Pennsylvania, also voted to impeach Clinton. Like Taylor, he said via email he does not regret his vote.

"Neither my judgment nor motivation has since changed," McHale wrote, pointing us to a speech he gave on the House floor explaining his vote:

"When the president took an oath to tell the truth, he was no different at that point from any other citizen, both as a matter of morality and as a matter of legal obligation," McHale said in the speech. "We cannot excuse that kind of misconduct because we happen to belong to the same party as the president, or agree with him on issues, or feel tragically that the removal of the president from office would be enormously painful for the United States of America."

The Clinton era was still a polarized one, and there were political costs for those who crossed party lines to impeach Clinton. Of the five Democrats who ultimately voted to impeach Clinton, three eventually became Republican (including Taylor) and McHale worked in the George W. Bush administration. However, none received the equivalent outcasting that Amash has faced for saying he's open to impeachment: a primary challenger.

In the Clinton era, there were more swing districts for both parties, and there was an understanding among party leaders that vulnerable members had to do what they had to do to represent their constituents and stay elected. The people who broke from their party had constituencies that were atypical from the rest of their party - one Democrat who voted to impeach Clinton, Ralph Hall, represented rural Texas, for example. Such a district doesn't exist for Democrats anymore.

Both Taylor and McHale said they cast their vote to impeach Clinton with future generations, future presidents in mind. McHale said that at the end of his speech in particular he spoke "with President (Donald) Trump - or someone like him - in mind":

"By his own misconduct, the president displayed his character and defined it badly," McHale said of Clinton at the time. "His actions were not 'inappropriate.' They were predatory, reckless, breathtakingly arrogant for a man already a defendant in a sexual-harassment suit - whether or not that suit was politically motivated. And if, in disgust or dismay, we were to sweep aside the president's immoral and illegal conduct, what dangerous precedent would we set for the abuse of power by some future president of the United States? We cannot define the president's character. But we must define our nation's."


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