I don’t think you should impeach for political reasons, and I don’t think
you should not impeach for political reasons." - Nancy Pelosi
Speaker Pelosi’s continued refusal to allow the House to open impeachment proceedings against President Trump is becoming increasingly incoherent. And her continued assertion that her decision is not about politics is becoming downright unbelievable.
How is it credible to claim, as Pelosi has, that Trump has committed crimes serious enough to put him in jail, but not serious enough to commence the Constitution’s main remedy for addressing Presidential wrongdoing: impeachment?
Pelosi's stance is transparently political. The only coherent reason for this is that she fears the politics of impeachment, not the process - and therein lies the rub.
The Politics and Principles of Impeachment are Inseparable
The politics of impeachment may be unpredictable, but the principles that compel it are clear. It’s politically irresponsible for Democrats to claim Trump has broken the law and betrayed the Constitution, then not hold impeachment hearings.
This only makes Democrats appear weak and unprincipled. And appearing weak and unprincipled is, by definition, bad politics. In some idealized political universe, Pelosi might prefer to avoid impeachment hearings, but in our real world, that’s just not a viable political option.
Republican Congressman Justin Amash, the sole Congressional Republican thus far to call for Trump's impeachment has, with the simple clarity of his statement, put Pelosi to shame and revealed the politically motivated calculations behind her stance.
Amash tweeted “President Trump has engaged in impeachable conduct” and then told a packed Town Hall meeting in his majority Republican Michigan district,
To me, the conduct [documented by special counsel Robert Mueller] was obviously impeachable, so the question is, do you then move forward with impeachment proceedings?
I think it's really important that we do our job as a Congress, that we not allow misconduct to go undeterred, that we not just say someone can violate the public trust and that there are no consequences to it.
Or as Rep. Ocasio-Cortez tweeted from the other opposite side of the aisle,
“It’s just as politicized a maneuver to not impeach in the face of overwhelming evidence as it is to impeach w/o cause. Congress swore an oath to uphold the Constitution. This includes impeachment. We have a duty to preserve our institutions + uphold the rule of law.
The principles are clear. For the House, under Democratic leadership, to shirk its Constitutional duty in the face of high crimes and misdemeanors would demonstrate a lack of principles in putting politics over responsibility. This is not attractive to an electorate that is seeking authenticity and accountability.
Pelosi’s Political Calculus
Putting politics over principle is exactly what Pelosi is doing. She told Rolling Stone that impeachment would be “a gift to Republicans.” Having called Trump a criminal, her real reason for opposing impeachment hearings is apparently her calculation that it would mobilize his base and increase their turnout in 2020. Perhaps. But it’s equally likely that refusing to hold impeachment hearings will demobilize and demoralize the Democratic base and result in fewer Democratic-leaning voters going to the polls.
...and still don’t go forth with the process as stated in the Constitution, they are not only in abdication or their duties, but they violate their own standards. They ask voters to believe in a system of government, then ignore those rules when it suits their political convenience. All the while, the marginalized communities who suffer most under this president, the ones who cannot assume that they’ll have their vote counted in 2020, sit powerless as the House majority performs an elaborate show that will ultimately result in very few, if any, consequences to the President.
In the face of such Democratic fecklessness, would it be any surprise if a meaningful number of Democratic-leaning minorities, millennials, and progressives don’t bother voting in 2020, just as fewer of them turned out for Hillary in 2016 than for Obama in 2008 and 2012?
The Clinton Precedent
While it’s impossible, 18 months before the presidential election, for anyone to predict with certainty the impact of impeachment hearings, Pelosi and her allies have concluded in advance that the impeachment of President Clinton had a negative impact on the 1998 and 2000 elections.
It’s true that in the 1998 midterms Republicans kept control of the House, even though Democrats picked up 5 seats. And Al Gore's decision to distance himself from the his former boss in 2000 likely contributed to George W. Bush’s victory, the Republicans holding the House and taking control of the Senate.
That handed Republicans what may well turn into decades of control over the Supreme Court, unlimited dark money in politics, voter suppression, greater economic inequality, the Iraq War, and dangerously irresponsible inaction on climate change.
So by these lights, impeaching Clinton may have actually helped Republicans win elections and move the country to the right.
Pelosi also seems to be setting an impossibly high bar for commencing impeachment hearings: that a majority of voters support impeachment in advance, and that enough Republican Senators will vote to convict.
This approach of polling and focus-group testing voters first, and deciding later what political stands to take, is all too typical of establishment Democrats and reinforces views that they are weak and unprincipled.
Impeachment hearings would enable Democrats to lead and shape public opinion, rather than simply following what they believe to be the public opinion of the day. Right now, there are multiple hearings before nearly a dozen House committees, all of which are being stonewalled by Trump and his associates.
This broad net only creates public confusion. Impeachment hearings would allow the Democrats to build a coherent narrative of Trump’s high crimes and misdemeanors, just as a prosecutor builds a narrative to a grand jury.
The Watergate Hearings Worked
The Watergate hearings, which were broadcast nationally on television from May to August of 1973, moved public opinion from opposing Nixon’s removal from office to supporting it - but it took time. Even in October of 1973, after Nixon ordered his subordinates to fire Watergate special prosecutor Archibald Cox, only 38 percent supported removing Nixon from office.
And while impeachment proceedings formally began in February of 1974, a majority of Americans never supported Nixon’s removal from office until courts forced the White House to release tapes of Nixon's Oval Office conversations about the Watergate break-ins and coverup on July 30, 1974. Support for his removal shot up to 57 percent, and Nixon resigned on August 8, 1974.
According to Gallup, 71 percent of Americans watched the Watergate hearings live. The hearings dramatically changed public opinion. Without them, most likely Nixon would have served out his full term.
From Plurality to Impeachment
A plurality of Americans now support impeachment, according to a recent Ipsos/Reuters poll, with 45 percent for and 42 percent against. This is a far greater level of support for impeaching Trump than there was for impeaching Nixon until only days before his resignation.
Imagine how nationally televised impeachment hearings, in which the Democrats systematically lay out the case that Trump has betrayed the Constitution, could move public opinion further in favor of impeachment.
The fear by Pelosi Democrats that impeachment hearings would fuel Trump’s reelection bid by turning off “swing voters” is misplaced. As a Democratic pollster from ALG Research told the New York Times,
Swing voters’ complaints about Trump are dominated by his style and personality, not his agenda or policies. Most participants express real concern about Trump’s tweeting, name-calling, staff turnover, distortions of the truth, etc. In seeking initial impressions of Trump, even when asking about his ‘agenda’ or ‘priorities,’ virtually no one volunteered the ACA repeal fights or the G.O.P. bill.
Impeachment hearings are likely to make these swing voters even more anti-Trump. And Democrats should be capable of walking and chewing gum at the same time—holding impeachment hearings and passing policy proposals through the House, all of which are destined to die in the Republican-controlled Senate anyway.
And assuming House Democrats build a compelling narrative of Trump’s high crimes and misdemeanors, it might not be a bad thing to force Republican Senators to cast votes to either convict or go down in history as finding Trump’s crimes compatible with America’s democratic republic.
Most importantly, impeachment hearings would show Democrats can stand strong for principle, whatever the political consequences. And voters like strength and authenticity.
Plus it’s just plain the right thing to do.