It’s been a few weeks for fans of impeachment. Republicans and Democrats have both been talking up the idea, and—lucky for them—it has resulted in two big belly flops.
The first came when Republicans in the House Freedom Caucus attempted to impeach Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, accusing him of “high crimes and misdemeanors” for allegedly withholding information from Congress. This stunt presumably was meant to appease the Republican base and preemptively tarnish the Mueller investigation.
In reality, it was colossally stupid. In a rational world, Republicans would be laying the groundwork for why impeachment is a bad idea. Instead, they risked creating a permission structure to justify the process. As ex-Watergate lawyer Michael Conway noted, the resolution could potentially lower the bar for impeachment attempts going forward.
In the end, other Republicans stepped in before the threat of impeachment could garner much public attention, with Speaker Paul Ryan dismissing it as, more or less, a stunt. It was good of him to do so.
The second example came at the Netroots Nation conference in New Orleans last week, when billionaire progressive and impeachment booster Tom Steyer scolded Democratic Party leaders for not joining his crusade. “I don’t see the Democratic establishment doing anything real to stop [President Trump],” Steyer said. “They’re not willing to face the devastating and obvious facts about this president. Like the fact that Donald Trump is wildly corrupt, and we are well past the threshold to kick him out of office.”
Just as the Republicans’ “impeach Rosenstein” efforts fizzled, according to the Washington Post’s Dave Weigel, the progressive crowd’s response to Steyer’s calls for impeachment was tepid. One audience member heckled Steyer, demanding that he present an actual plan. It was good of that audience member to do so too.
Still, revenge is sweet, and impeachment is an especially seductive idea. It is swift, absolute, easy to comprehend, and it doesn’t require original ideas or hard work (like, say, winning an election). Also, there is something satisfying about some grandiose moment when your adversary is finally cornered, forced to confess: “You’re goddamn right I ordered the code red!”
But it is also a blunt tool with major downsides. It’s the political equivalent of a get-rich-quick scheme (remember that most lottery winners wind up miserable in the end). And if it becomes normalized as a tool to wield against the opposition, the escalation may be impossible to stop.
The litany of scandals swirling around the Trump administration provide ample fodder for comeuppance fantasies. However, talk of impeachment remains painfully premature and could backfire politically.
For one thing, the threat of impeachment causes Trump to focus even more intently on his base to ensure that no House Republicans revolt. The result is more outrageous and divisive rhetoric. I’m not suggesting that Trump would be a normal president if it weren’t for the threat of impeachment (that would be insane), but impeachment talk certainly isn’t helping matters.
The bigger political problem is that talking about impeachment makes it less likely Democrats will ever be in a position to have the chance.
Midterm elections are about turning out your voters, and emotion drives turnout. Democrats already have passion on their side. Steyer’s group insists that the issue isn’t a motivator for Republicans. But why even run the risk?
Think about what impeachment talk does for Trump fans. If you are a Trump supporter, you might not be motivated to go vote for some establishment incumbent Republican Senator. But what if (in your mind, at least) Donald Trump’s survival hinged on your vote for that ballot? What if you see this election as a life-or-death struggle against the people trying to delegitimize the president and overturn the 2016 election? Democrats should convince their base that this as a national election, and they should hope that the GOP base sees it as a local election. Impeachment talk does the exact opposite.
The same holds true for Republican efforts to target Rosenstein. At a time when Democratic voters and even Independents seem increasingly petrified that the president is acting lawlessly, working to remove the official overseeing a probe into Russian influence peddling only feeds those fears. It also reminds people of the need for at least one branch of Congress to be controlled by an opposition party.
Beyond the politics though, are questions of feasibility. Let’s say that Democrats win the House and even the U.S. Senate; they still won’t have the numbers to remove the president from office. That would take a two-thirds majority in the Senate, which would require getting some Republican votes. And even if you got that, you’d still end up with a President Mike Pence. Now, I might not view that as such a horrible thing, but I’m willing to bet some Democrats would have some buyer’s remorse.
Between now and November, my advice to everyone is to focus on your job (crafting public policy, running smart campaigns, etc.) and not try to short-circuit the electoral process. Republicans are already doing a pretty good job of poisoning the well for the Mueller investigation. Likewise, Democrats appear poised to take the House in November. So why get greedy and rush things, when you can take this debate to the ballot box?
So far, this summer, saner minds have prevailed. Let’s see how long that lasts.