The Political Reality Of Impeachment
While the drumbeat for impeachment of the President continues on the left, political reality suggests caution.
In his latest Washington Post column, George Will cautions against pursuing impeachment against President Trump, arguing that such a move would be a “political debacle”:
If congressional Democrats will temper their enthusiasm for impeachment with lucidity about the nation’s needs and their political self-interest, they will understand the self-defeating nature of a foredoomed attempt to remove a president for aesthetic reasons. Such reasons are not trivial but they are insufficient, particularly when almost all congressional Republicans are complicit in, by their silence about, President Trump’s comportment.
Impeachment can be retrospective, for offenses committed, or prospective, to prevent probable future injuries to the nation. Greg Weiner is a Madison scholar par excellence and author of a new book on a subject — prudence — that Democrats should contemplate (“Old Whigs: Burke, Lincoln, and the Politics of Prudence“). Elsewhere, he writes this about what he calls “one of the Constitution’s most solemn powers”:
“The purpose of impeachment is not punitive. It is prophylactic. Criminal law looks backward toward offenses committed. The object of impeachment is not to exact vengeance. It is to protect the public against future acts of recklessness or abuse.”
As Alexander Hamilton wrote in Federalist 65, impeachable offenses should “relate chiefly to injuries done immediately to the society itself.” Trump’s incessant lying and increasingly contemptible coarseness are as reprehensible as was President Richard M. Nixon’s surreptitious criminality. And — because they are constant, public and hence desensitizing — they will inflict more long-term damage to America’s civic life than Nixon’s misdeeds did.
But Democrats should heed Weiner: “That an offense is impeachable does not mean it warrants impeachment.” Potential impeachers must consider “the general political context of the times,” including “the potential public reaction.” Democrats should face two lamentable but undeniable facts: Trump was elected because many millions of Americans enjoy his boorishness. And he essentially promised to govern as a lout. Promise-keeping would be an unusual ground for impeachment.
Furthermore, impeachment will not result in Trump’s removal. Consider today’s supine behavior of most congressional Republicans, which stirs fragrant memories of the vigorous obedience of many members of the U.S. Communist Party to Stalin in the late 1930s. Until Aug. 23, 1939, Stalin wanted, so the CPUSA advocated, U.S. engagement in European resistance to Hitler’s expansionism. However, when on that date Germany and the Soviet Union signed a nonaggression pact as a prelude to carving up Poland, the CPUSA instantly pivoted to advocating U.S. noninvolvement in Europe’s affairs. Then on June 22, 1941, Hitler invaded the Soviet Union and the CPUSA lurched back to advocating maximum U.S. engagement in resistance to Hitler.
Most congressional Republicans today display a similar versatility of conviction. They were for free trade until Trump informed them that they were not. They were defenders of the U.S. intelligence community until Trump announced in Helsinki that he believed Vladimir Putin rather than this community regarding Russian support for his election. They excoriated wishful thinking regarding North Korea until Trump spent a few hours with Kim Jong Un and, smitten, tweeted, “There is no longer a Nuclear Threat from North Korea.” Republicans have moved from stressing presidential dignity to cowed silence when, to take only the most recent example, Trump endorsed a North Korean state media outlet’s ridicule of “low IQ” Joe Biden (a taunt Trump falsely ascribed to Kim). Republicans railed against President Barack Obama’s executive overreaching but are eloquently mute when Obama’s successor promiscuously declares “emergencies” in order to “repurpose” funds Congress appropriated for other purposes, and to truncate the process of congressional approval of weapons sales to Saudi Arabia and its allies.
CPUSA members in the 1930s, blinkered by ideology, had a servile faith in a Soviet regime that they identified with historic (and therefore progressive) inevitabilities.
Today’s congressional Republicans, blinded by their puppy-like devotion (and leavened by terror of the capricious master to whom they are devoted), would make a Senate impeachment trial a partisan debacle ending in acquittal.
What Will is saying, in far better language than I could muster, is basically similar to the position I have taken with regard to impeachment as reflected in my posts in April and last week. As I’ve said in those posts, the arguments in favor of impeachment can be found fairly easily in the Mueller report itself, and in the numerous other allegations of wrongdoing that have been made against the President. Most certainly, these charges deserve to be taken seriously and thoroughly investigated, in public, with the results of those investigations being made available to the American people. Additionally, the case in favor of impeachment has been made quite strongly by, among others Congressman Justin Amash, the sole Republican to speak out against the President.(see here, here, and here). Despite that, actually pursuing impeachment may not be an advisable course of action.
In this case, as I have said repeatedly, it is apparent that there will not be sufficient support in the Senate to convict and remove the President regardless of what the charges or the evidence may be. The result would be the same as what we saw in the previous two Presidential impeachments of President Johnson and President Clinton, impeachment by the House and acquittal by the Senate. Indeed, many of the “jurors” who would hear the trial of the President have apparently already made up their mind on the matter.
This would be an acquittal that would take place on the eve of the Presidential election and could arguably lead to the President and his base being energized while the opposition would be disheartened after what would obviously be a long process that would make the current political divide over the Trump Presidency even wider than it already is. It would also potentially defeat the goal that those of us who oppose this President, which includes George Will, have at the front of our minds, getting him out of office by the most expeditious process possible under the Constitution. Under the Constitution and taking into account the political realities that we’re faced with, at this point that means defeating him at the ballot box in 2020. The ongoing investigations are an important part of that process, of course, but we should not be deceived into thinking that impeachment, as tempting as it is and as delicious as it would be to see this President on trial, is going to accomplish that goal because, under current circumstances, it isn’t.
Will’s analysis here largely mirrors my own thoughts on the issue of impeachment which I have expressed here and here. While I don’t dismiss the seriousness of the evidence against the President, the fact of the matter is that impeachment is, in the end, a political act and Democrats in the House would be wise to keep that in mind. As I’ve noted before, polling has indicated that the American public does not want to see Congress pursue impeachment at this time. To be sure. the same polling shows that there is significant support for impeachment among Democrats just as there is significant opposition to it among Republicans. Crucially, though, this same polling currently shows that a majority of self-identified Independents say they are opposed to impeachment at this time. Additionally, Congressional Democrats who have spent the current recess back home attending town halls and other meetings with constituents have found little support for immediate moves to impeach the President even among Democrats. Instead, these voters want to see Congress focused on health care reform and other issues of importance to the average voter.
As I’ve said before, none of this should be taken to mean that Congress should stop investigating the President. In fact, it indicates quite the opposite. For the first two years of the Trump Presidency, the Republican-controlled Congress basically did nothing in response to the reports about wrongdoing by the Trump campaign, by the President in his private affairs, or by the Administration. It was in no small part due to this failure that Republicans suffered historic losses in the House of Representatives that caused them to lose more seats than they had since the elections that took place just three months after President Nixon resigned in 1974. In that sense, Democrats have a duty to act where Republicans refused to. If the evidence begins to point toward impeachment, and especially if the Administration continues to stonewall legitimate Congressional inquiries and requests for documents, then it may become necessary to open a formal Impeachment inquiry in the Judiciary Committee. Before heading down that road, though, Democrats should proceed carefully.