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Republicans see Clinton's impeachment through rose-colored glasses

Republicans want Americans to see the GOP's impeachment campaign against Bill Clinton as having been "dignified" and "non-partisan." No, seriously.
Former U.S. president Bill Clinton speaks during a \"Get Out The Vote Clinton Family Event\" for democratic presidential candidate  Hillary Clinton at Manchester Community College on Feb. 8, 2016 in Manchester, N.H. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty)
Former U.S. president Bill Clinton speaks during a \"Get Out The Vote Clinton Family Event\" for democratic presidential candidate former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton at Manchester Community College on Feb. 8, 2016 in Manchester, N.H. 

If the point of the headline on Karl Rove' latest Wall Street Journal column was to get attention, the editors succeeded. It read, "Clinton's Impeachment Was Dignified."

Those of us who remember the details of the impeachment saga surrounding Bill Clinton, and read Ken Starr's report, can probably think of a variety of adjectives. "Dignified" isn't one of them.

A week earlier, Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.), one of the House impeachment managers who encouraged the Senate to remove Clinton from office 20 years, wrote an op-ed for the New York Times and emphasized an even less defensible point.

Earlier this Congress, Nancy Pelosi, the speaker of the House, and Jerrold Nadler, the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, set forth criteria for undertaking an impeachment. They said that the evidence would have to be overwhelming and compelling, and, importantly, it would have to be bipartisan.Looking back at the Clinton impeachment, I'm convinced we satisfied each of these. Kenneth Starr, the independent counsel, conducted a very lengthy and nonpartisan investigation.... Mr. Starr testified before our committee that the president might have committed impeachable offenses.

Sensenbrenner's underlying point was that contemporary House Democrats failed because they didn't convince House Republicans of Donald Trump's guilt. It's a difficult argument to take seriously, since for GOP lawmakers, nothing short of a signed presidential confession would've made a difference.

But the Wisconsin congressman assertion that Ken Starr oversaw a "non-partisan" probe, like Rove's insistence that the investigation into Clinton was "dignified," suggests Republicans don't remember the events of the late 1990s nearly as well as they should.

It's part of a phenomenon Robert Schlesinger once labeled "Clinton Nostalgia Syndrome," which generally involves Republicans, who made every effort to destroy Clinton at the time, praising the former Democratic president, and encouraging contemporary Dems to follow Clinton's lead.

But the effort now appears to be spreading, with Republicans also holding out their own impeachment crusade against Clinton as a model worthy of emulation.

That's absurd. Mother Jones' Kevin Drum explained:

Ken Starr conducted a "lengthy and nonpartisan investigation." God almighty. As we all know, it was indeed lengthy. But nonpartisan? After knowingly continuing to probe the Whitewater "scandal" long after he knew it was bogus, Starr eventually pushed his Ahab-like investigation into every crevice he could dream up, finally harpooning his white whale not by finding any presidential misconduct, but by laying out a carefully calculated and planned perjury trap for Clinton over the inconsequential question of whether he had ever gotten a blow job from Monica Lewinsky.But sure, this was just an ordinary citizen doing his job, not a Republican diehard refusing to stop until he had something -- anything -- he could use against Clinton.Donald Trump, by contrast, is being impeached not because Democrats even tried to investigate him over Ukraine. It just fell into their laps and then Trump himself released the transcript that showed he had tried to extort a foreign country to benefit him personally. There was no need for a long investigation because witnesses basically fell out of trees to confirm that, in fact, this was exactly what Trump had done. Nor was this a personal peccadillo. It was, plainly, a clear and serious abuse of presidential power.

It's amazing that we even have to revisit all of this. As we've discussed before, some younger news consumers may have limited memories of the era, but in the 1990s, most Republicans in D.C. woke up every morning with a fairly specific goal: trying to destroy the Clinton presidency. It was an era in which Tom DeLay ran a scorched-earth campaign against the White House. It was an era in which Newt Gingrich shut down the government because Clinton made him use the wrong exit on Air Force One. It was an era in which Dan Burton, the then-chairman of the House Oversight Committee, felt compelled to shoot melons in his backyard in the hopes of proving that there were murderers in the White House.

And it was an era in which Republicans' hatred for Clinton led them to impeach the president as part of a partisan and undignified campaign. There's no point in pretending otherwise.