Last week, I took both sides of a series of important, related question: was Trump’s impeachment a good thing for democracy? The rule of law? For Democrats? I also talked it through with my podcast co-host Charlie Gerstein on the latest episode of Versus Trump. But my thinking has continued to evolve even after we talked it through on the podcast, and now I have to render a verdict. And that verdict is that Trump’ impeachment, from where we sit today looks…not so great. It was a high-risk move, and I’m not sure it paid off. Let’s get right to the most decisive aspects.
First, while I noted that the impeachment inquiry did initially drive up support for impeachment, that seems to have plateaued and then reversed. Four of the most recent five polls on this question showed a majority of Americans did not support impeaching the president. And, although some reports of substantial improvements in the President’s approval ratings have likely been exaggerated, it is undeniable that his acquittal by the Senate has sent his approval ratings up, not down. If this holds, it’ll have made his reelection more likely, which is surely not the goal of those seeking his impeachment.
Was this the Democrats’ fault? Yes, sort of. The best precedent they had was the Clinton impeachment. In the wake of the vote refusing to remove Clinton from office, he scored his highest approval ratings ever—indeed, at 73% approval after the Senate vote, Clinton actually hit some of the highest approval ratings by a President in modern history following that vote. Approval ratings are complicated, of course. But if a President’s vindication does tend to spike approval ratings, it’s a bad idea to pursue that in an election year.
Second, in the end, the Democrats got almost no support from the elites of the current Republican party. No House Republicans voted yes, and only one Republican Senator did. Democrats will strenuously argue that they nonetheless overcame the presumption against partisan impeachments, that Trump’s conduct was objectively impeachable, and it was the irrational intransigence of Republicans that prevented more of a consensus. Historians may think that view correct. But it ignores the polarized state of the media and the country. It also ignores a point that I had neglected to mention earlier but that a friend of mine pointed out to me after I wrote the first two posts: many on the right had already thought that Democrats were itching to impeach Trump from the moment he took office. That’s true: the “efforts to impeach Donald Trump” wikipedia page talks about efforts that began even before Trump took office. For many who had grown tired of impeachment talk, it’s hard to view the actual impeachment as anything other than mere pretext.
Third, Democrats did not do enough for people of good-faith in Trump’s camp to consider that there was more going on here than mere partisan attacks. As I mentioned, Democrats did not doggedly pursue witness testimony or evidence that had some possibility of shifting the playing field. That was obviously a tactical decision—and it was not required to prove obstruction of justice—but the reality is that it left them with no way to persuade any Trump supporter willing to listen to evidence that Trump’s conduct really merited removal. The record of the call was what it was, and if that was not enough to move people, then nothing except for additional, novel evidence could do so. The Democrats not only did not come up with that; they did not aggressively pursue it.
Fourth, it is not clear they advanced the rule of law. Yes, they were right that the President committed impeachable offenses. Yes, they had to investigate and, in some way, condemn. But I don’t know where impeachment got us. This episode may, but likely will not, constrain Trump’s conduct with respect to foreign interference in the 2020 election and beyond. And it will likely only increase the extreme disdain with which the executive branch treats Congress now. Why, after this proceeding, will a hypothetical Bernie Sanders administration respond to any document requests from a Republican Congress pursuing impeachment? If the President will be impeached no matter what, but not removed, there is no reason to do it. A Sanders Administration will cite the Pat Cippilone “illegitimate impeachment” precedent and move on.
To be sure, Democrats energized the left and exposed things that should have been exposed. And I see the value of not dragging things out too long. But I fear that Democrats drew what they thought would be a clear line in the pavement, marked with bright white paint, for all to see. Whether or not Trump was removed, they thought there would many people of good-faith on both sides that could see how obviously he crossed the clear line.
But that was proved wrong. In fact, the Democrats drew a line in sand, not on pavement, and Trump, the Republicans, and the media quickly blew it away. In so doing, the Democrats revealed just how many lines of ours are actually drawn in sand and not in bright-white marker. It may not be their fault that the sand washed away, but it was foreseeable.
Democrats may take back the presidency, gain seats in the Senate, and hold the House. But the evidence is pretty good that, if they do that, then they could also have done that without having impeached Trump. By contrast, if Trump is reelected, they will be faced with four more years of a President who has already been impeached, and then came back even stronger. For all but Trump’s most ardent supporters, that’s a very scary thought.
I understand the oaths that each Democrat in Congress took to support and defend the Constitution. They did right by those oaths. But I’m not sure that a possibility as scary as second-term, post-impeachment Trump was worth the impeachment as they pursued it.