An Alternative to Impeachment
Each day, it seems, yet another Democratic member of Congress or one of the two dozen or so Democratic presidential hopefuls joins the ranks of those calling for the impeachment of President Trump. They, and a sizable portion of the activist element of the party’s base, are impatient with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s determination to proceed carefully, gradually, deliberately. This frustration is echoed -- and magnified -- by cable TV hosts and commentators who apparently see their role as cheerleaders for impeachment.
Regardless, it is important to note that impatience is not a strategy, and hyper-partisanship is seldom a successful tactic on matters of constitutional gravity or political complexity.
I say that as someone who will not take a back seat to anyone in my alarm over the harm Donald Trump is doing to our civic norms and to the foundation of our republic. I believe that his continuation in office for a second term will be a disaster for our country. That said, I oppose moving to his immediate impeachment.
A decision by the House of Representatives to impeach the president would be made almost entirely by the current Democratic majority; right now, only one Republican (Justin Amash of Michigan) would vote in the affirmative. Just one. The action would then move to the Senate, which is controlled by the GOP, 53 to 47. To get to the required two-thirds majority, 20 Republican senators would have to join all 47 Democrats in finding Trump guilty. It won’t happen. It wouldn’t even be close. A negative Senate verdict will be translated as “innocent” by Trump and his allies. Do you doubt that? Does O.J. Simpson ring any bells?
Trump would then turn the 2020 campaign into a referendum on the Democratic Party, and what he will cite as its abuse of power, its obstructionism, and its crippling hatred of him. He will position himself as the victim, not the culprit, and he could ride those themes to reelection. We will then be faced with a two-term Trump presidency, which would almost certainly be worse than what we have endured to date.
Those are the stakes I see in a misguided, premature, ill-thought-out impeachment effort. Let’s turn to history for guidance.
Only three of America’s 44 presidents have been faced with serious impeachment efforts: Andrew Johnson in 1868, and he was spared conviction in the Senate by one vote; Richard Nixon in 1974, and he resigned, but only after the congressional Republican leadership told him that impeachment would receive a bipartisan majority vote in the House, and that the Senate would most certainly vote to convict; Bill Clinton in 1998-1999, when the House voted along partisan lines to impeach, but the Senate failed, by a sizeable margin, to convict.
Clinton and Nixon, each in their own way, are instructive in the current situation.
For starters, Clinton was confronted with a hostile Congress. The House was controlled by the opposition party, as it is today, though the labels are reversed. The Senate was in GOP hands, too, but that wasn’t much of a factor. The closest vote on the articles of impeachment was the one alleging obstruction of justice and the result was a 50-50 tie, as only four Republicans defected from their leadership and joined all Democrats in voting for acquittal.
That made the ultimate tally far short of the needed 67 votes. Why would the dynamic be any different now? For Democrats, however, the best historical analogy to be kept in mind is Nixon’s. The 37th U.S. president was directly involved in a series of crimes and other transgressions that the opposition party believed had undermined the Constitution. Moreover, his campaign apparatus and several White House aides were involved in the original break-in and in the coverup. Many ended up in jail as a result. Nixon’s crimes, and those of his associates, went to the heart of our democracy, and served to undermine some of its basic tenets. This is what a many of us believe we are facing today.
Yet when it comes to Nixon and Watergate, what’s different is that those yelling “Impeachment now!” (as was the case during Nancy Pelosi’s recent speech to the California Democratic Convention) possess a dangerously incomplete knowledge, and minimal understanding, of that vital chapter in American history.
Back in 1974, the House of Representatives did not initiate formal impeachment proceedings until after a Senate select committee chaired by conservative Democrat of North Carolina, Sam Ervin, and the ranking Republican member -- moderate and respected Howard Baker of Tennessee -- had completed its investigation. That in-depth probe, which had commenced in 1973, involved 51 days of hearings that were covered extensively by all three networks – and PBS had gavel-to-gavel coverage for two weeks – along with virtually every newspaper in the country.
The Senate Watergate Committee set the predicate for what followed. The House Judiciary Committee turned the Senate committee’s findings, plus those of Special Prosecutor Leon Jaworski, into the specific charges that brought Nixon down.
Given Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s slavish devotion to Trump, nothing like that will occur in this Congress. Anything that happens will have to start in the House. And it has started. Trouble is — and this must be corrected by Pelosi and her leadership team — the House Democrats’ approach so far appears to many voters to be helter-skelter, and fueled mainly by narrow political considerations. She needs to bang heads, big-foot the various chairs, and demand a comprehensive, coordinated, strategic approach. The public must be educated about the Russian interference in our democracy, about Trump & Co.’s cooperation with the Russians, and about Trump’s efforts to obstruct the investigation.
A more systematic approach to all major congressional action — not just something as contentious as impeachment — was once the norm in our nation’s capital. The following comparison is far from exact, but I was an eyewitness to how House Speaker Tip O’Neill facilitated movement on America’s first-ever national energy policy in 1977 and 1978. O’Neill circumvented the existing committee structure by appointing a “super committee” representing the various jurisdictions and interests, and then appointed a savvy and tough legislative tactician, Lud Ashley of Ohio, to chair it. Ashley was not an expert in energy policy, but he was an expert in getting things done.
Ranks of the “impeachment now” crowd are growing, and that momentum must be stalled, lest we drive ourselves, and our country, into a political box canyon. To do that the speaker needs — the “loyal opposition” needs — a coherent counter-approach, one that is understood by a majority of Americans. We are far from that right now.
The goal is simple: To remove Donald Trump from the Oval Office. Hardly anything else matters. As things now stand in the Senate, impeachment won’t accomplish that goal. Our only realistic hope is to be found in the 2020 election, and the case for defeating Trump will certainly be made by the Democrats’ eventual presidential nominee. But the foundation for that argument can be — should be — established now, and the process must start in the House of Representatives.