Democrats Risk a Referendum on Impeachment, Rather Than on Trump

Democrats now seem to be hurtling toward something that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and many other party leaders had desperately tried to avoid: impeaching President Trump. Pelosi has probably spent more time with Trump than any House Democrat. It’s safe to say she can’t stand the man. She just thought removing him from office was the wrong political play.

Breathless media accounts report that a majority of House Democrats now favor an impeachment inquiry, with the emphasis firmly on the word “impeachment” rather than on “inquiry.” I thought they already were doing an impeachment inquiry, so what changed?

Impeachment requires a majority of House members (218 if everyone votes). Democrats have 235 seats in the House. They can’t count on any Republican votes yet, although independent Rep. Justin Amash, formerly a Republican, might back an impeachment resolution. That means no more than 17 Democrats can defect (one fewer if they have Amash on board). It’s not hard to see how a House Democrat could support an inquiry that was already taking place but possibly not back articles of impeachment that have yet to be specified, much less written. Moreover, there is a zero percent chance that 20 Republican senators would join all 47 Democrats to get the 67 votes necessary for conviction.

So with no hope of actually removing Trump, and with public support for impeachment still soft, is this really a good idea? Is it a better idea than Republicans impeaching and trying President Clinton when the public opposed it in 1998 and 1999? What Trump is accused of doing may be significantly worse than Clinton’s transgressions, but shouldn’t the public be on board before the House puts the country through such a wrenching experience?

We hear many references to the impeachment of Presidents Nixon and Clinton. In the case of Nixon, after an eight-month investigation, the House Judiciary Committee voted articles of impeachment for obstruction of justice, abuse of power, and contempt of Congress. Nixon announced his resignation days later, before it came to the House floor.

In the case of Clinton, the House Judiciary Committee passed articles of impeachment for lying under oath and obstruction of justice without much in the way of formal hearings (independent counsel Ken Starr’s four-year investigation served that purpose). It still took more than three months from the day the Starr Report was delivered to the House before the chamber voted to impeach Clinton on two of four counts, and nearly two more months before the Senate acquitted him.

Besides the point that this process takes time, the key difference is that Nixon and Clinton were in the first half of their second terms, never to face voters again. Impeachment was Congress’s only recourse for removal. In the present case, before a Senate impeachment trial could probably be concluded, Trump would be in the last quarter of his term in office, with an election in his immediate future.

Americans believe in elections and in regular order. We elect our officials and then, most of the time, those officials have to stand for reelection to allow voters to judge whether they are worthy or not. Consider the case of Scott Walker, the controversial Republican governor of Wisconsin, first elected in 2010 with 52 percent of the vote.

Walker’s war on public-employee unions made him a mortal enemy of the Democratic coalition. A recall effort ensued, with Walker winning the June 2012 statewide vote with 53 percent. Walker won reelection in 2014 with just over 52 percent, then in 2018 lost his bid for a third term, garnering just over 48 percent of the vote. A lot of Wisconsin voters didn’t like him, but Walker’s vote in the recall was his best performance in four statewide general elections.

Though the cases are not identical, the lesson here is that voters tend not to see removal as a vehicle for “correcting” electoral results, particularly if another election is approaching. And face it: Many of these House Democrats were talking impeachment before Trump even took the oath of office.

Impeachments are long, messy, unpleasant ordeals (I have lived and worked in D.C. through both Nixon’s and Clinton’s). Impeachments suck all of the oxygen out of the room. Voters do not support impeachment unless they see no other option.

Karen Tumulty’s column in Thursday’s Washington Post had the headline, “Impeachment will define the 2020 election.” A Thursday headline atop the website for WMUR, New Hampshire’s dominant television station, read: “Impeachment now viewed as the overshadowing issue of 2020 election.” Democrats should want this election to be a simple referendum on Trump—not a referendum on their efforts to remove him.

This story was originally published on nationaljournal.com on September 27, 2019