Impeachment is Congress's job. And none of the arguments against using it now are any good.

News & Politics

The great impeachment debates of 2019 have begun.

With the release of Special Counsel Robert Mueller's report and its clear implication that President Donald Trump's obstruction of justice in the course of the Russia investigation, Democrats must now decide whether they want to use their control of the House of Representatives to begin impeachment hearings against the commander in chief.

I'm not particularly enthused about the idea. Almost everyone seems to agree that, absent some new catastrophic revelation or development, the Senate will never vote by a two-thirds majority to remove Trump from office. Failed impeachment proceedings, many argue, could boost Trump.

But despite my lack of enthusiasm for impeachment, I'm more worried about what failing to impeach Trump means. It would likely be seen as a stamp of approval on Trump's conduct and behavior. Any future president, guilty of similar offenses, will be able to point to the record of what Trump has done as an established precedent. They may even push the bounds a little further, eroding the checks on the presidency.

Why, after all, should any future Democratic Party allow a presidential ally to be impeached, given what Trump has been allowed to get away with? And would any future Republican Party be more willing to hold its own president accountable than the present GOP?

In arguing against impeachment, Vox's Ezra Klein wrote: "Whatever its motivations, if an impeachment drive is certain to fail and likely to strengthen Trump and congressional Republicans going into the 2020 election — thereby rewarding the very behaviors it’s meant to curb — then I have trouble understanding the point of it."

He never actually argues, though, that an impeachment push would strengthen Trump. FiveThirtyEight's Nate Silver made a more straightforward case for:

And Klein adds:

No one is arguing that public opinion is immovable, just as no one is arguing public opinion is endlessly malleable. The argument is that public opinion begins opposed, and congressional Democrats don’t believe that impeachment proceedings will change that fact in their favor.

Maybe they’re wrong, but I’m not seeing people make a serious case that they’re wrong.

I don't know whether public opinion for Democrats or Trump would go up or down if impeachment were seriously pursued. With no firm view on this matter, I'm inclined to think that Democrats should come down on the side of doing the job of Congress and holding contemptible — and, in Mueller's suggested view, illegal — behavior to account. Moreover, I am confident that, absent a strong Democratic push for impeachment, the public will be more inclined to believe that Trump's behavior really wasn't that bad.

If the Mueller report were really damaging, it would be natural to think, Democrats would be pushing for impeachment.

I wish, too, that Democrats had long ago taken my advice on impeachment: Before the Mueller report was released, I argued that the party should have uniformly been calling for Trump's resignation. His public behavior with regard to Russia case and many other matters was already far and away unacceptable for a president. Instead, even a Democrat like Rep. Eric Swalwell (D-CA), who has been steeped in the Russia probe, was demanding that Trump to "lead" the country Thursday night on MSNBC, even while he called for Attorney General Bill Barr to resign.

In what world does Barr need to resign but Trump should "lead"? They should both be out of their jobs.

But even without that prior calls for resignation, the release of the Mueller report represents enough of a pivot point that it would be reasonable for Democrats to change their tune and begin calling for impeachment. It's true, as Silver pointed out, that voters didn't en masse call for impeachment in 2018; but we know more now, and anyway, impeachment isn't the voters' job. It's lawmakers responsibility, and presumably, voters have taken their cue — at least to some extent — by the reluctance of leaders like Nancy Pelosi to call for it.

One cloud looming over the entire question, of course, is the failed impeachment of Bill Clinton. President Clinton remained popular throughout the proceedings, and Republicans were left looking absurd for pushing the matter. But that's likely because Clinton's defenders were successfully able to frame the question as one about the president's personal conduct. Trump's impeachment would center on his behavior in a key matter of national security and in his role as president, greatly raising the stakes — much higher than they were even in the successful ouster of Richard Nixon.

Trump and the GOP would cry foul, of course, and say that Democrats are just bitter about losing the 2016 election. But they say that regardless. And for some reason, people like Klein continue to help with this unhelpful casting of an impeachment push, referring to impeachment as "overturning the result of the last election."

Impeachment, let's be clear, does not overturn an election. If the Senate decided to boot Trump, Hillary Clinton would not become president. Mike Pence would take over — you know, the guy who was the winner of the vice presidency in the last election.

Jordan Weissman of Slate gave additional reasons for opposing impeachment:

First, I quarrel with the idea that impeachment is about what would "feel good." I have no emotional need to see Trump impeached, especially since it wouldn't likely be successful.

But Weissman's claim that impeaching Trump would force Democrats to campaign on Russia and not on health care is unpersuasive. The main Democratic message in 2020 will end up being driven by whoever the presidential nominee is — and they will almost certainly be running on a positive message, focused on health care and pocketbook issues.

At the same time, the impeachment push could continue to focus on Trump's corruption, self-dealing, abuses of power, and his radical unfitness for office. That may not be the focus of the campaign, but it's not bad to have as the background noise. After all, Trump successfully ran against Hillary Clinton in 2016 by driving home a message about her supposed corruption (and, at the same time, promising everyone health care).

Klein also argued:

Absent public support for impeachment, and amid a strong economy, it would give the White House an opportunity to run the playbook Bill Clinton ran so successfully in the 1990s: Here’s Trump, focusing on economic growth, and there are the Democrats, focusing on their doomed vendetta against the president.

But if the economy is strong in 2020, Trump's message will inevitably be "the economy is strong, and Democrats are sore losers/traitors/meanies." If the country were to fall into recession, though, Trump's popularity could plunge — which could even potentially make getting him out of office early a live possibility. Either way, it seems like a moot point.

Will Democrats actually choose to impeach? I suspect they won't; but I also expect that it's in some ways a less important question for 2020 than many people imagine. Regardless, the presidential election will be a referendum on Trump, perhaps tempered by the quality of his opponent.

The question is, what will happen to the impeachment power if it goes unused? If, when it is so clearly needed, the president's opponents decide it's just not worth the trouble? It will feed a continuing trend that started long before Trump, but one that he has drawn greater attention to: the warped, unwieldy, and expanding power of the modern presidency.

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