Thursday, February 6, 2020

Impeachment Postmortem

It's over at last! To no one's surprise, the Republican Senate has acquitted President Trump, the third president in US history to have been impeached by the House. How history will remember this strange episode remains to be seen. In the present, whatever good one may have hoped might have come from this experience, its short-term effects seem largely negative. That too should hardly come as any great surprise, which is why Speaker Pelosi wisely resisted pursuing impeachment for such a long time, until circumstances left her with little option. 

Last June I wrote on this site "that the one person who stands to benefit the most from an impeachment proceeding is President Trump himself, which may explain his increasingly provocative and obstructive behavior towards Congress, as if he were practically provoking the House to move toward impeachment." Like most observers, I anticipated the President's acquittal, "with the vote breaking down, more or less, along party lines." All of which suggested to me at the time that "Democrats would do better (1) to investigate but not impeach, (2) to legislate more than investigate, and (3) to nominate a successful candidate and evict Trump from the White House the old fashioned way by winning a mandate from the American electorate." That was my view then and remains my view now.

That is not to deny that the President acted in a corrupt manner (already obvious the day the original phone transcript was released) which certainly merited investigation and impeachment - and probably conviction by the Senate. Nor do I deny that the House made a credible and compelling legal and moral case for the president's removal. But, to repeat what ought to be obvious, impeachment is a political process to be embraced or avoided according to the virtue of political prudence.  Hence, however clear the facts, reasonable observers  could plausibly disagree on whether or not to impeach and on whether or not to convict.

The initial impulse for impeaching the president reflected a particular wing of the Democratic party's preference for expressive rather than effective politics. As expressive political behavior, impeachment was theatrical and symbolic in the extreme. As effective political action, it was inevitably an extreme failure. 

Speaker Pelosi, who famously once said that impeachment needed to be bipartisan, understood this, as did many others; but the combination of the President's wildly inappropriate behavior together with increasing pressure from the more extreme elements of the Democratic House Caucus pushed the House Democrats in this problematic direction.

What could the Democrats have done differently? One thing the House could conceivably have done would have been to appoint a Select Committee to investigate the President's Ukraine phone call and related actions - analogous to the 1973 Senate Watergate Select Committee. In 1973, that committee's televised hearings helped move public opinion, which eventually (with help from various other factors including the President's own behavior), led to Nixon's increasing loss in popular support, which was what finally led to his resignation. Given contemporary Republican tribalism, a 1970s Nixon-like outcome was always an unlikely scenario. So then the obvious course would have been for the committee to aim to reveal and clarify as much as possible and then to take it all to the voters - into whose hands Trump's fate has at last been returned.

Thanks to this imbroglio, Trump's approval has reached an all-time high of 49%. That's not as high as Clinton's approval after his impeachment trial, but it is the highest he has ever gotten, which is hardly an encouraging assessment of the impeachment effort. It is certainly a timely reminder that this President and his supine supporters in Congress will not be easy for anyone to defeat at the polls.

But now that the primary campaign has officially begun, the Democrats need to get back to where they should have been focused all along, before they got distracted by impeachment Their task is to nominate a successful candidate who can evict Trump from the White House the old fashioned way by winning a mandate from the American electorate, something their bickering, divided party is not presently  demonstrating its readiness to do.

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