After months of hesitation, Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi has called for an inquiry into the impeachment of President Donald Trump.
Republicans believe she is making a mistake. As House Democrats have one by one announced their willingness to impeach Trump, Republican campaign spokesmen issued press releases to portray them as lunatics. Representative Lizzie Fletcher, a Democrat from Houston, “supports the socialist Democrats’ wild-eyed drive toward impeachment.” Representative Mikie Sherrill of New Jersey has sided with the party’s “rabid base.”
Pelosi had been resisting impeachment in large part because she thought that the Republicans might be right about the political fallout. And since Republican support for Trump almost certainly makes it impossible for the Senate to attain the required two-thirds vote to remove him, Democrats thought they were going to pay a political price in return for nothing.
This political worry wasn’t baseless. A Politico-Morning Consult poll this month found that half of voters opposed starting impeachment proceedings while only 37% support it. That’s consistent with other surveys. Pelosi has been in Congress long enough to have seen House Republicans impeach President Bill Clinton, which caused his job-approval ratings to rise and theirs to fall.
The argument for Democratic caution was also correct on another point: This time, impeachment is likely to be even more partisan than in the Clinton years. Five House Democrats voted to impeach Clinton even though he was from their party. The parties have gotten more polarized since then, though, and it’s unlikely Republican politicians will turn on Trump unless Republican voters shift first.
There is also the concern that the run-up to an impeachment vote might cause Republican voters and Republican-leaning independents to shift in the other direction: to become more supportive of Trump. Soft supporters might overlook their reservations about him because they are more outraged by a Democratic effort to remove an elected president. The Republican majority of the Senate might not even hold a trial after a House impeachment: There’s no constitutional command that it has to.
These are the political arguments for the Democrats to try to defeat Trump in the next election rather than to seek to remove him from office before then. But the pressure to move ahead with impeachment proved harder and harder, as predicted, for Pelosi to resist.
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The good news for Democrats is that for every argument that pushing ahead on impeachment will hurt them, there is another that it won’t hurt much and may even help.
For one, the Clinton precedent should not strike fear in Democratic hearts. Less than two years after the Republicans voted to remove Clinton from office, they controlled the White House, the Senate and the House.
And the polls provide grounds for Democrats to hope that impeachment will work out better for them than it did for the 1990s Republicans. The Clinton impeachment was so unpopular in part because the public was happy with the national condition and didn’t want to see it disrupted. They were pleased with Clinton’s performance before the impeachment drive began: In mid-January 1998, Gallup showed him with 60% approval and 30% disapproval. Trump is at 43% approval and 54% disapproval according to Gallup. By a two-to-one margin, Americans are dissatisfied with the direction of the country.
There’s also a less quantifiable consideration. The Democrats next year will not be running against Trump as a run-of-the-mill failed politician — the way they defeated George H.W. Bush in 1992. The vast majority of Democrats believe Trump is corrupt and unfit for office, and they will almost certainly be waging a campaign that says so. And there is only one action they have in their power to register that view: impeaching Trump.
If they went to the election without doing it, they would have undercut the rationale of their own 2020 campaign. In that circumstance, when the Democratic presidential nominee repeated the charges against him, Trump would be able to say that if the rest of the Democrats took them seriously, they would have voted to impeach him. He probably would say it.
The political arguments for and against impeachment aren’t decisive. Democrats can’t be confident that seeking to remove Trump from office will help them, or that it will hurt them. Hence the indecision that they have only just resolved. With the politics hard to figure, they may as well do what they think is right.