Yes, We Absolutely Have to Think About the Political Implications of Impeaching Trump
Impeachment will fail in the Senate, and it’s really hard to see how losing—and that’s what a Trump acquittal would be: a Democratic loss—gets converted into winning.
Folks: Let’s think twice about these immediate calls for impeachment.
The reason is simple. It will fail. The Senate will not convict. There is no way 20 Republicans (the required number, assuming all 47 Democrats would vote to convict, which is probably a wobbly assumption too under present conditions) will vote to remove Donald Trump from office. And in failing, the impeachment process would likely improve Trump’s chances of getting reelected.
Please bear with me and consider these arguments. Let me start by saying I totally understand the calls for impeachment. This president is a gangster, totally lawless. The Mueller Report can reasonably be interpreted as a kind of roadmap to impeachment—as Robert Mueller saying, “OK, House Democrats, here you go, build your case.”
I think the Democrats should build that case, make no mistake about that. Jerry Nadler, Adam Schiff, Elijah Cummings, and other relevant committee chairs should hold aggressive hearings on every aspect of the report. But opening hearings that are officially called impeachment hearings? No. It’s premature.
Here are three arguments I’ve been hearing over the last few days. I’ll rebut each in turn. Argument 1, or 1a and 1b, has to do with historical precedent. The Republicans impeached Bill Clinton for far less (1a). Also, 1b, the Democrats commenced hearings against Richard Nixon at a time when polls showed a public that was still wary of impeachment.
On the Clinton example, the answers are simple. No matter how horribly polarized things get, the Newt Gingrich Republicans just can’t be the Democrats’ example for how to behave. Gingrich was and is a malignancy. An awful person, a horrible hypocrite (having an affair even as he was reproving Clinton for his moral failings!), and the most divisive politician of our time, after Trump. Besides, that impeachment backfired on him and the GOP. It helped cost him his job and helped Clinton leave office with an approval rating north of 60 percent.
As for the Nixon precedent, that’s just no longer relevant. That was a different world, back when Congress actually did work in a bipartisan fashion. In those days, Democrats could count on a handful of Republicans to put party loyalty to the side on a matter as grave as impeachment and follow the evidence. Today, I’m hard pressed to think of one Republican who would elevate evidence over party loyalty. That means that impeachment would be seen, fairly or not, as a totally partisan effort.
Argument 2 is more interesting. It’s that impeachment would help the Democrats politically and lift their chances in 2020. The reasoning goes that if Democrats are seen as taking a strong stand on behalf of the rule of law, that forces Republicans to defend the lawless rule of Trump, and that’s a winning argument to swing voters and those 78,000 Trump voters in Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin the next Democratic presidential candidate needs to win back.
It’s possible. We can’t predict these things. But I think the opposite is more likely. Let’s face it, the right-wing media machine has a lot of power in terms of how political debates are framed in this country. Fox and the rest of them will fulminate endlessly about how the Mueller Report supposedly cleared Trump, and this is nothing but a viciously partisan “Democrat” effort to get revenge for Hillary (they won’t forget to add that it’s all a Clinton-orchestrated plot).
And don’t forget two other points here. One is that the report did hand the Republicans a little ammo in the form of the shade it threw on the Steele dossier. Lindsey Graham is going to chair hearings on that right up through election time. Second—and everyone seems to have forgotten this—Department of Justice Inspector General Michael Horowitz is due out with his report on the FBI’s handing of the Trump campaign investigation in May or June. Suppose he concludes that the FISA process was abused in that investigation? Waters that may seem clear to you today will get a lot muddier.
Argument 3 is the main one. Forget the politics, people say. This is more important than that. This is right and wrong, the rule of law. It’s the Democrats’ moral duty to do the right thing in the eyes of history and let the political chips fall where they may.
I take this argument seriously. Upholding the rule of law and the Constitution is definitely a moral duty. But I say the Democrats have one moral duty that’s even higher: beating Trump in 2020. If they don’t do that, what will become of the rule of law then?
Here, I circle back to where I started. Impeachment will fail. The Senate will not convict. If there were a 50 percent chance of conviction, or even a 25 percent chance, I’d be thinking differently. But you and I both know that the chance of the Senate convicting is as close to zero as anything in this world can be (under current circumstances; if that changes, great). Any Republican who went with the Democrats against president and party would be finished. They won’t do it.
So, Trump will remain in the White House. And he’ll declare victory. He and Fox and Mitch McConnell and every Republican will crow about it endlessly and carry on about how those bloodthirsty Democrats have to be punished at the polls. It’s really hard for me to see how losing—and that’s what a Trump acquittal would be: a Democratic loss—gets converted into winning.
The idea that politicians should do X and not think of the political consequences just doesn’t hold up. They’re politicians. Thinking of political consequences is their job. So imagine the scenario. House Democrats vote, say, five articles of impeachment against Trump. The Senate acquits. The effort has failed. Trump remains in office, screams vindication, and is reelected.
Will it have been worth it? Two more right-wing—not “conservative”; hard right-wing—justices on the Supreme Court, replacing Ginsburg and Breyer, producing a Court that ends the Voting Rights Act, reverses itself on same-sex marriage, does away with Roe. Worth it? The death, by legislation or court decision or executive fiat or some combination, of Obamacare. Worth it? Four more years of not merely inaction on climate change, but actively making the situation worse. Worth it? Ever-worsening inequality, ever-greater glorification of a totally unfettered free market, and an ever more stratified society where there’s just no hope of economic justice. Worth it? For an effort that didn’t even remove the man from office?
Here’s what the Democrats should do. As I wrote above, all the relevant committees should hold hearings aggressively, just nothing called impeachment hearings. See what they turn up. Wait for the Southern District investigation to finish, see what news emanates from there. Wait for the New York state attorney general. Wait for the emoluments case. Hold hearings following up on all those matters. They can string all this out so that devastating news about Trump keeps dripping out well into election season.
And of course—if evidence emerges of something huge, something irrefutable, then they should impeach. They shouldn’t close the door on the possibility, as indeed they are not. But it has to be something that really moves public opinion, so that it’s clear that most of the 8 or 10 percent of voters who really are up for grabs agree that it’s a necessary or at least understandable step. That, by the way, is not calculation or cowardice. On a matter as weighty as this, having the backing of a majority of public opinion is important. It’s democracy.
“Election time is when you beat Trump,” said Arizona Congressman Raul Grijalva, one of the House’s more left-leaning Democrats, after the report’s release. He’s got his eyes on the prize. Upholding the rule of law, yes, is imperative. But the best way to do that is to beat Trump. As things stand right now, impeachment makes that harder, not easier.