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Analysis

Will impeachment be forgotten by November 2020? Don't be so sure.

Presidents Richard Nixon, Donald Trump and Bill Clinton.

STARS AND STRIPES AND AP

By DAN BALZ | The Washington Post | Published: December 7, 2019

Perhaps all the conjecture is correct, that impeachment will be long forgotten by the time of the 2020 elections. Such assumptions do little to minimize the stakes for House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and her fellow Democrats as they move toward the likely impeachment of President Donald Trump.

Democrats are employing one of the most serious of their constitutional powers. The seeming desire on the part of many people for it to end quickly is not only a reflection that the outcome is a foregone conclusion but also that the politics of it are fraught.

People can look back to the two previous impeachment proceedings of modern times - those involving Presidents Richard Nixon and Bill Clinton - and attempt to speculate about the possible political impacts. Those limited data points point in contradictory directions.

Nixon resigned the presidency in August 1974 and thereby escaped being impeached by the full House for abuse of power, obstruction of justice and contempt of Congress. The damage from two years of investigations and revelations, as well as multiple convictions of administration officials, spilled onto his party. Three months after Nixon left office, Republicans lost four seats in the Senate and 49 seats in the House. Two years later, Republicans lost the presidency.

Clinton was impeached in the House in December 1998, little more than a month after midterm elections - contests in which the Republicans, who would typically have been expected to make gains, lost ground. The aftershocks from those results proved to be chaotic for the Republicans, who were leading the push to impeach Clinton.

Then-Speaker Newt Gingrich, R-Ga., faced a revolt from GOP members stunned by the election results. He soon announced he would not seek another term as speaker. Then, as the House was nearing a vote to impeach Clinton, the Republican poised to succeed Gingrich, Rep. Bill Livingston, R-La., announced in a dramatic floor speech that he would not seek the leadership post after it had been become known that he had engaged in an extramarital affair.

In those moments, the Republicans' decision to impeach Clinton looked like a political loser - no matter how sullying it might have been to the reputation of the president.

Clinton was subsequently acquitted in the Senate trail, but in the 2000 election, Republicans won the White House and maintained their House majority, which they had won in 1994, until the 2006 elections.

That leaves the record from two previous episodes as one example of political upheaval and damage to the party of the president undergoing an impeachment proceeding and one example of a party that led a controversial and politically charged impeachment suffering damage in the short term but expanding its power in Washington in the subsequent election. Make of that what you will.

What the country is dealing with now is of a different order. The impeachment proceedings underway are a sober constitutional matter and a political circus. A politically divided nation, the fractured media environment, the toxicity of social media and a president who feeds on chaos have combined to create an atmosphere unlike anything that existed during Nixon's impeachment proceeding and significantly noisier and unbending than during Clinton's.

David Axelrod, who was Barack Obama's chief strategist and is now a political analyst, tweeted last week that the coming months are thoroughly predictable: Trump will be impeached in the House, along party lines, and acquitted in the Senate, along party lines. He implied that the sooner it is all over the better, and the quicker the country can move on from this to the next chapter of politics in America.

In her appearance on Thursday announcing that the House would move ahead to write articles of impeachment, Pelosi said the president had left House Democrats no choice, that the legislative branch's constitutional responsibilities require a response to what he did to press Ukraine to investigate a potential political rival. Trump has compounded matters by refusing to cooperate in any way with the impeachment proceeding, a departure from other presidents who have faced similar inquiries.

The president calls what House Democrats are doing "a big, fat hoax." It is not that by any means. The evidence laid out in the record of the president's call to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and by testimony from a string of career officials in the executive branch provides the country with information contrary to the president's claims. Trump has prevented any witnesses with a close-in view of events, those who could corroborate or rebut the body of evidence, even to testify.

House Republicans have responded to the evidence not just by claiming what he did is not impeachable but also by arguing that it is in no way improper. Their reluctance to offer even the most tepid criticism risks the further aggrandizement of the powers of the presidency and the weakening of those of the legislative branch. Their reaction is testament to the hold Trump has over the Republican Party and the fear of Republican elected officials to cross him.

Pelosi has said politics has played no part in the decision to move forward, meaning that political considerations were not part of the calculus. But impeachment is inherently a political as well as a legal process. Beyond that, the proceedings have not met the terms she laid out earlier in the year: Pelosi had said that impeachment of a president is so divisive, so tearing to the country, that it should only be done with bipartisan support. In a polarized America, that standard appears nearly impossible to reach.

Politics are enmeshed in all this, as everyone knows. In the case of Clinton's impeachment, his White House and his allies treated it as a political campaign to be won or lost. Legal issues were thrashed out at each step of the process, but what also took place was a war of messaging and persuasion. Clinton's approval rating remained high throughout, which guaranteed his acquittal.

Trump will be in a different place if the House votes by the end of the year to impeach him. His approval rating is not - and never has been - close to what Clinton's was. He has never enjoyed majority approval for his conduct and performance in office, even at a time of historically low unemployment and a stock market that continues to set records. He will emerge from this proceeding weaker than Clinton.

But he will also emerge, if what everyone assumes will happen does, as the first president to have gone through this process who will be seeking reelection. Andrew Johnson was not nominated by his party after he was impeached and acquitted in 1868. Nixon left office and couldn't have run again in any case. Clinton also could not seek reelection. Only Trump will seek the verdict of the voters after a verdict from the Senate.

The anti-Trump energy in the country has manifested itself repeatedly since he was elected, whether in the women's marches or the midterm and other elections that have seen Democrats gain seats and strength.

Impeachment could affect that energy in one of two ways. It could add to the determination of those who oppose the president to see Trump limited to a single term. Or it could demoralize some and keep them home. The choice of a Democratic nominee will be a factor here.

The other question is whether Trump can use impeachment, along with everything else, to continue to stoke anger toward the Democrats among voters he would need to win a second term. His capacity to take this moment and bend it to his advantage ought not to be underestimated, as he has shown with past adversity.

Impeachment in some form or another will be on the ballot next year. 
 

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