There are times when American politics resembles Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland. You see a political party’s politicians, activists, and base seemingly operating in a parallel reality.
It’s no secret that in the 1990s many very partisan Republicans and conservatives saw President Clinton, and, for that matter, first lady Hillary Clinton, as crooks. They obsessed over the Whitewater scandal and conspiracy theories abounded (remember Fort Marcy Park off the GW Parkway?). Indeed there were few crimes that someone on the Right had not accused one or both Clintons of committing, up to and including murder. So when the Monica Lewinsky affair broke into the open, these Clinton-haters jumped on the scandal like a duck on a june bug. They had caught Clinton lying under oath about having sexual relations with an intern in a room adjacent to the Oval Office. They finally had him nailed.
Yet when the GOP-controlled House voted to impeach him for perjury and sent the articles of impeachment to the Republican-controlled Senate for trial, they must have known two things.
First, few Americans were not appalled by Clinton’s transgression. Indeed, for those of us who had young children at the time, we had to keep the remote control in hand during the evening news, ready to hit the mute button if it sounded like the story was headed towards blue dresses or something like that. It was an awkward time. But the economy was growing, the country was doing reasonably well, and voters were disinclined to rock the boat. Many people felt that impeachment wasn’t an appropriate mechanism for dealing with the situation.
Second, they knew that the constitutional requirement was that two-thirds of senators who are present and voting are necessary for conviction, that it was impossible, that it was not going to happen, that there was an absolutely zero percent chance of conviction. But they did it anyway.
That brings us to today. Arriving at a hotel room late Thursday night and switching on the television (my wife says I do that just for company), I saw talking heads on several cable news channels with their hair on fire over new revelations about President Trump and Ukraine. Rudy Giuliani’s cronies allegedly traded text messages that could implicate Trump, perhaps Vice President Mike Pence, and others in the administration. For a lot of people on the Left and in the media, the story was blowing up.
Had the Constitution been amended to allow Trump’s removal from office with the votes of only 47 senators? Or were 20 Republicans now ready to join the Democrats to convict? Was there a change of heart in public attitudes, that now there was a broad consensus that Trump should be removed from office? Apparently not. In fact, through all of this, there has been virtually no movement in Trump’s numbers or for impeachment. The people who approved of his performance in the first 100 days of his presidency still do, those that didn’t then still don’t now. Support or opposition for impeaching and removing Trump tracks very closely with disapproval and approval ratings, although support for removal trails disapproval by a handful of points.
Don’t get me wrong. This isn’t to suggest that the president has done nothing wrong or doesn’t deserve it. But it’s not going to happen. In this tribal, hyper-partisan era of American politics, with great pressure on elected officials of both parties not to break ranks no matter what, and particularly with Trump up for reelection in November, there was, is, and will be a zero percent chance of him being removed from office through the process of impeachment.
We hear the rationalization that Congress has an obligation to pursue impeachment, that not doing so effectively sanctions his actions, making it permissible for future presidents to act likewise. Or maybe the exercise is cathartic for House Democrats. But it is still futile.
Traveling across the country a great deal over the past year, I heard very little about Robert Mueller, Ukraine, or impeachment. It’s limited to partisans and news junkies. Even in long conversations about politics, it can take a while before the word "impeachment" even comes up.
It seems hard to reconcile the talk about income inequality and social injustice with a futile obsession that looks more than a little self-indulgent. How are the optics of the Senate spending six days a week in an impeachment trial with a totally predictable outcome? For the man or woman juggling multiple part-time jobs trying to make a living, what are they thinking? Or the college graduate stuck in a job that they are grossly overqualified for, wondering if they will ever get onto the career track they once envisioned? Or the person facing massive health care bills or crushing student-loan debt? Parents worried about their kids' schools, or a son, daughter, wife, or husband serving in Afghanistan or Iraq or somewhere else in harm’s way—what is their reaction to this obsession about an impeachment that is destined to fail?