If the nation stays on its current vector for much longer — say, another ten months or so — we’re going to be reading ignoring a lot of stories about the end of the modern Republican coalition. And eventually, some unknown number of years after that, historians will have their say about the rise and fall of whatever label they ultimately afix to the agglomeration of fundamentalists, imperialists, nativists, racists, Norquists, and sundry dead-end kids who currently make up the GOP voting bloc.* There will, I suspect, be many books devoted to the subject.

The rise side of the equation is pretty well known, though still open to debate. But the fall is unfolding as I write this post.** So I’m just guessing when I suggest that scholars will one day point to 9/11 (the taproot of overreach), the road to the Iraq War (hubris and deception run amok), or Katrina (the byproduct of incompetence and limited-government ideology) as the moment when the slide began.

Let me offer an alternative reading: on this day in 1999, Chief Justice William Rehnquist began presiding over Bill Clinton’s impeachment trial. The details are relatively well known. Or, if not, you can go here or here. Regardless, Clinton’s impeachment revealed the depths of the Republican Party’s depravity. It wasn’t that Clinton was an innocent; he was a cad and a serial liar. But the idea that Congress would approve articles of impeachment because of the “facts” contained in the Starr Report seemed absurd. Especially when placed in historical context.

In 1866, Andrew Johnson, who had taken office after Lincoln’s assassination the previous year, vetoed the Civil Rights Act and campaigned against ratification of the Fourteenth Amendment. (Both eventually passed despite his opposition.) Johnson’s intransigence outraged Radical Republicans, who tried but failed to impeach him in 1867. The following year, the president attempted to sack Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, the man responsible for administering most of the key elements of Reconstruction in the South. Congress responded by successfully impeaching Johnson, who came within a single vote of conviction in the Senate.

So, before this day in 1999, a president had to derail Reconstruction to get impeached. (Remember that Nixon quit.) But no longer. Not on Henry Hyde’s watch. Now, the public would be safe from a chief executive who dissimulated about his sex life. Forget the fact that Clinton was both popular (before and after the impeachment proceedings) and pretty darned good at running the country. Ultimately, the Senate, as in 1868, voted to acquit. But not before watering down the meaning of “other high crimes and misdemeanors.” And providing Joe Lieberman with the bully pulpit. Now that was truly unforgiveable.

* As noted elsewhere on this blog, there are, in fact, honest and decent conservatives still out there. But these are trying times for them.

** Unless it isn’t. Let me be clear: this is no sure thing. Events, as I’ve said elsewhere, have a nasty habit of intruding upon inevitabilities. So we’ll just have to wait and see what happens over the next year and beyond that.