The thought of impeaching Donald J. Trump is enticing, especially because my preferred approach, drawing and quartering, became illegal in the mid 19th century. Despite the allure of impeachment and despite its having been a pledge on which some new members ran for Congress in 2018, Nancy Pelosi was right to say she is against impeachment “unless there’s something that’s “so compelling and overwhelming and bipartisan, I don’t think we should go down that path, because it divides the country.” Besides, she added, “He’s just not worth it.” Her reluctance may seem heretical to some, but it is shrewdly strategic to chill the left’s lust for impeachment at this time.
Impeachment, which the Democratic House of Representatives could well pass, would be just step one, a prolonged process of gathering evidence, holding hearings, drafting and voting on the indictment. The House would impeach by majority vote. The Senate would then have to prosecute the case, with the Chief Justice presiding, and vote by two thirds to convict. That isn’t going to happen. As former Congressman Barney Frank, speaking last Thursday to a New England Council gathering, reflected, “There is nothing to be gained in starting an impeachment that will fail.” Given the Republican-controlled Senate – led by some who live in fear of being “primaried” by Trump supporters – it is hard to imagine a Senate conviction. Remember, when Richard Nixon resigned, he was facing trial in a Democrat-controlled Senate.
Even if it succeeded in the Senate, it likely wouldn’t happen until sometime in 2020, leaving just a few months for the remainder of Trump’s term. Meanwhile, this man, whom Pelosi holds to be “ethically unfit, intellectually unfit, curiosity-wise unfit,” could become a martyr, with increased blow-back on the Democrats. Besides, why give even a few months of honeymoon incumbency to right-wing conservative and religious zealot Vice President Mike Pence as a leg up on 2020?
In 1998, Bill Clinton was impeached by the House (on charges of perjury and obstruction of justice), but the Senate failed to convict. Former MA Congressman Bill Delahunt, also at the New England Council, recalled hearing then-Speaker Newt Gingrich tell Congressman Tom Delay in the White House gym that the Republicans would surely pick up 15 to 20 seats in the election because of the impeachment process. Instead, Republicans had a net loss of six seats.
By 1998-1999, the American people were fed up with two years of impeachment-induced paralysis, and “nothing came out of it that warranted the suffering that paralyzed the country for two years,” said Delahunt. Among the effects of that impeachment process was the derailing of Clinton’s progress toward a Palestinian/Israeli solution. Current investigations of Trump can legitimately go forward – and should with deliberate action – without drafting articles of impeachment and without bringing the 116th Congress to a standstill.
Frank faulted impeachment advocate billionaire Tom Steyer and others for impugning the courage of those who disagree with moving to impeach. I would include Yoni Applebaum, senior editor of The Atlantic, in the Steyer camp. She, too, says failure to impeach would be Congress’ deferring to the voters “to do what it cannot muster the courage to do itself.” I don’t see this as lack of courage but a clearer sense of pragmatic strategy to achieve the overriding goal of replacing Trump in 20 months.
Applebaum also argues that Trump’s “ability to sidestep scandal by changing the subject- perhaps his greatest political skill – will diminish” with the impeachment process. But if, in the likely case that Trump is not convicted, the outcome could boomerang. After the Senate failed to convict Clinton, his approval rating skyrocketed.
The Constitution doesn’t mandate impeachment. As Barney Frank pointed out, “No prosecutor was ever mandated to bring a prosecution no matter what the consequences would be. Yes, having someone be guilty is a prerequisite for prosecution, but it is not required to go forward.” The strategic alternative is to defeat Trump in the general election, rather than stoke the already-acerbic divisiveness in the system.
Former Representative Michael Capuano believes this represents the view of the majority of Democrats. “Proof matters. Evidence matters. News reports aren’t enough to throw the country” into a tailspin. Refusing to rush to impeach doesn’t absolve the President of his many missteps, transgressions, high crimes and misdemeanors. If current Congressional hearings establish wrong-doing that trigger outrage from a sufficient margin of now-invertebrate Senators to convict, then the principled and pragmatic approaches could become one.
If the Democrats want to beef up their chances to regain the Senate and the Presidency, a better course is developing the best public policies to meet the needs of the American people and reflect sound values gone AWOL in Washington. If they succeed, and communicate their message well, they could hold the House, regain the Senate and take back the White House next year.
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