By Mike Koetting October 3, 2019
A month ago, Scott Jennings, a Republican strategist, had an op-ed in the Chicago Tribune outlining several gun reform measures Republicans should support. The gist of the argument was that public support for these measures was high, particularly among suburban voters Republicans need. Opposing them would be seen among voters as an unwillingness to address a clear and present problem. On the other hand, Jennings noted, supporting these measures, in addition to improving the commonweal, would provide comfort to voters who were disposed to vote Republican but were being put-off by Trump’s antics. They would be reassured there was some leadership around a broader set of values.
The argument was very compelling. So compelling that I found myself hoping that Trump would fail to support these obvious and modest measures. That, in turn, made me uncomfortable. How does it come to pass that I find myself rooting against measures I am actively supporting in other venues because their passage would also strengthen Republican electability. If we can’t come to terms on specific issues, how do we make democracy work? Yes, there are the extenuating circumstances of the Trump presidency. But I just didn’t feel good about hoping Republicans fail to endorse measures I know to be good things.
As it has happened, the issue of gun reform seems to have dropped out of the short national attention span as all the political air has been subsumed by l’affaire Ukraine. Unfortunately, the impeachment discussion poses for me even worse conflicts of values and expediency.
First, Trump’s actions are impeachable. I concede that the Constitution did not anticipate impeaching presidents because you don’t like the way they are carrying out their office. Impeachment is not a substitute for a recall referendum. As offensive as Trump is on many fronts, that does not provide basis for impeachment. There needs to be an act that clearly violates the fundamental rule of law as we know it. Dangling foreign aid as an incentive to undertake actions to impact an election crosses that threshold. Maybe it’s not as blatant as Nixon, but it is over the line. If, as initial evidence suggests, there were material efforts to cover up the conversation, they provide more evidence that the participants knew things had gone too far.
That being said, as I write this, there are significant political risks to the House actually voting to impeach Trump. There is no reason to believe that the Senate would vote to convict. No president has ever been convicted by the Senate and the odds of 20 of the current Republican senators voting to oust Trump seem negligible. Nor is there any reason to believe that Trump, like Nixon, would decide the risk of a vote was too great and resign. Republicans would control the order of business in any Senate proceeding. As Henry Olsen points out, there is no telling what Mich McConnell might put on the agenda or how the discussion would proceed. And if, as the odds are, Trump is not convicted, we would then be forced to listen to him endlessly declaring that the Senate vote had proved him innocent and that it was a witch-hunt all along. It could wind up as politically muddled as the Muller Report.
Given it is unlikely that impeachment can actually remove Trump, the question is whether the House should vote to impeach anyway. While public sentiment is clearly moving in that direction, it is not yet clear how strong that wave will be or how many swing voters will respond favorably.
If the House does vote to impeach, proceedings will probably stretch out after the first of the year. This would raise the possibility that the contest for the Democratic nominee would get lost in the background. The real loss there is that in their various campaigns, Democrats are exposing the country to a range of different ideas and proposals for how we might move forward to address the challenges that we face. Ultimately, it is the quality of those ideas that will determine our nation’s future, so short-changing that discussion creates longer-term problems.
I also think there are large swathes of the population who don’t have the same interest in politics as most of the readers of this blog. No matter how starkly we see the real clash of values taking place, for them the endless stream of charges, counter-charges, name-calling and accusations will seem like rancorous white noise. We already have one of the higher rates of non-voting among developed countries. This is likely to increase the sense among many that politics is a bunch of inside-interest groups arguing with each other to see who gets the upper-hand. Hard to say the ultimate effect on the polity, but it seems unlikely to be good.
I think a more political advantageous approach would be that the House continues to investigate Trump, but at a much lower pitch, and doesn’t send the issue to the Senate–in short, the original Pelosi strategy. This keeps the issue of Trump’s outrages in the news, but avoids giving Trump a chance to be “vindicated” by a Senate vote. Democratic candidates can continue to debate and develop their positions so that, when sentiment settles around some candidate in the spring, she or he will be ready to do battle with Trump, armed with clear thoughts about the Democratic position on issues and posing a clear alternative to Trump, who, whatever else, will have been diminished by the events of the previous year.
Notwithstanding the political risks, after some soul-searching, I’ve come to believe the House should vote to impeach Trump, assuming of course the facts continue to support that he committed an impeachable offense. It’s not that outcomes don’t matter. They do. The thought of another four years of Trump literally fills me with dread. But at the same time, values need to be values. Precisely because an impeachable offense is so serious, it is incumbent on our representatives to vote for the values that undergird the rule of law, not be swayed by expediency. Deciding that what Trump did deserved impeachment and then saying “…but the politics weigh against it” is not acceptable. It is a version of the same calculus that allows many Republicans to continue supporting Trump even though they know he is a walking dumpster fire.
Taking a duck on the impeachment vote also requires Democrats to assume that Republican senators will in fact put party over values. There is abundant evidence that many Republican senators are deeply uncomfortable with Trump. Still, they have continued—out of expediency—to stick with him, so it’s a good bet they will continue to do so. But taking it as a foregone conclusion on an issue this big would seem to be a total abandonment of the idea that the two parties can agree on the fundamental tenets of our democracy. I guess if that’s the case, better to know it. And in the silver-lining department, there would probably be some offsetting political advantage from forcing Republican senators to explicitly defend Trump. Since winning the Senate next year is almost as important to the Democrats as winning the presidency, anything that weakens Republican senators is a political plus.
Frankly, my fondest hope is that some strange political wind blows this whole mess aside and we can go back to making the 2020 election the referendum on Trump and the Republican party. But in the absence of that, I have come to think Democrats in the House should vote to impeach. Not because they disagree with every aspect of Trump’s policy, not because of his incipient authoritarian tendencies, not because he uses the office to enrich himself, and not because he’s a racist bully who believes women are there for his taking. These are all true, but are not impeachable offenses. I think Democrats are compelled to vote for impeachment because he has committed an impeachable offense. If that plays out to the Democrats political disadvantage, shame on the American people. But this is a test of values, not expediency.