Why Democrats Can’t Punt on Impeachment

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Anti-Trump protesters demonstrate in Portland, Oregon. 

When politicians appear on the Sunday shows they're usually there to deliver talking points and make well-worn arguments, so spontaneous moments are rare. But when Representative Jerry Nadler, the chair of the House Judiciary Committee and one of Donald Trump's main adversaries appeared on Meet the Press this past Sunday, one such moment offered a revealing window into where Democrats are on the question of what should be done now that Robert Mueller's report has been released to the public.

During a discussion of the politics of impeaching President Trump and whether it would be good or bad for Democrats to begin that process, Nadler argued that it was a possibility, but there's no need to be hasty, since there are more hearings to be held and more evidence to gather. Then host Chuck Todd seemed to throw him with a straightforward question: "Do you think this is impeachable?" Nadler paused for a couple of seconds, his eyes drifting upward. Then finally he gave a small sigh and said, "Yeah, I do."

He clarified that some of the charges still need to be proven. But this is where we are: You'll be hard-pressed to find a Democrat who doesn't believe that the conduct Trump engaged in merits impeachment. But most of the party's elected officials in Congress are still reluctant to take that step, even as they agree Trump absolutely deserves it.

They agree because Trump's behavior was utterly appalling and unbefitting a president, both before and after he took office. This is the inescapable conclusion of the Mueller report. Even if there was no criminal conspiracy, Trump, his family, and his campaign were eager for the help of a hostile foreign power to secure his election. Once in office he took repeated steps to obstruct the investigation into the Russia scandal. As Mueller wrote,

Our investigation found multiple acts by the President that were capable of exerting undue influence over law enforcement investigations, including the Russian-interference and obstruction investigations. The incidents were often carried out through one-on-one meetings in which the President sought to use his official power outside of usual channels [...] The President’s efforts to influence the investigation were mostly unsuccessful, but that is largely because the persons who surrounded the President declined to carry out orders or accede to his requests.

The fact that he mostly failed in his attempts to obstruct justice does not mitigate the egregiousness of his conduct. Nevertheless, many Democrats, including Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, are either taking impeachment completely off the table or saying that it's somewhere off in the future, a possibility to be considered only after some greater body of information is acquired.

It's a purely political judgment, and a defensible one. It begins from the reasonable position that because you couldn't get Republicans in the Senate to vote to remove Donald Trump if he killed their own mothers, impeachment means a process that ends in him being acquitted.

But more than that, Democrats seem worried about a backlash, as voters would see them undertaking a doomed process and punish them for being too "partisan."

This is where the argument against impeachment gets shaky. Democrats have an eternal desire to be the grownups in the room, the sober and reasonable people who take governing seriously and don't run off on frivolous goose-chases. Which is a good thing to be, except they also believe that the voters will reward them for it, a proposition for which there is almost no evidence.

Or to put it another way: Republicans never seem to get punished for being unreasonable, unserious, overly partisan, or unconcerned about norms of propriety and fair dealing. Republicans were not punished for the lunacy of the Tea Party movement, as Democrats hoped they would be. They weren't punished for taking the unprecedented step of refusing to allow Barack Obama to fill a vacant Supreme Court seat. They weren't punished for mounting one ludicrous investigation of the Obama administration after another.

Indeed, it was during the seventh congressional investigation of Benghazi that they discovered that Hillary Clinton was using a private email system for work, a fact which, however absurdly, quite literally delivered the election to Donald Trump.

But what about the Clinton impeachment? Didn't Republicans pay a price for that circus? A small one—they lost four seats in the House in the 1998 elections, and in the Senate neither party had a net gain. On the other hand, their presidential candidate won the White House two years later despite a booming economy.

That's not to mention that an impeachment of Donald Trump would be nothing like the impeachment of Bill Clinton. There is a vast difference between impeaching a popular president because he had an affair and lied about it, and impeaching a president because he committed a litany of corrupt acts that very much revolved around his conduct in office. The equivalent to the Clinton impeachment would be impeaching Donald Trump solely because of the Stormy Daniels matter, which the public might justifiably regard as an overreaction.

Let's not forget that just after the House voted to impeach him, Clinton's approval reached 73 percent. By the time the vote was held, the public had spent a year debating the subject in homes and workplaces, and came to a consensus that it was absurd to impeach a president for the reasons Republicans were doing so. It wasn't because it was "too partisan," it was because of the specific reasons Republicans impeached him.

Trump, in contrast, is the most consistently unpopular president in modern history, and the first poll taken after the release of the Mueller report showed his approval falling to 37 percent. It's hard to know now what the public would think about removing him if we debated it for a year, but they're probably smart enough to grasp the difference between lying about an affair and abusing your office to obstruct justice.

All that being said, the truth is we don't really know what the political outcome of an impeachment process would be. We can make historical analogies, but no two situations are exactly alike.  

Right now, it looks like congressional Democrats are taking the same position on impeachment they did before the 2018 election, which is essentially: "Maybe; we'll see." As long as that's followed up with vigorous investigation of the things Mueller revealed and the rest of myriad facets of Trump's corruption (still waiting for those tax returns!), that's fine for now.

But there's also something to be said for taking a simple moral stance that stands apart from political considerations, namely this: If Donald Trump deserves to be impeached, then Donald Trump should be impeached. That's pretty hard to argue with. 

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