Now that Democrats have quietly initiated an impeachment inquiry, they have put into motion a process that will end with either articles of impeachment or a tortured explanation for not impeaching a president who has made high crimes his brand. Unless and until they are able to hold hearings that focus the public’s collective attention on the collusion (it’s in the Mueller report) and cover-up that defines the Trump campaign and administration, they will face the same political problems responsible for preventing them from moving with purpose toward impeachment, namely that it is not a top priority for voters outside the Democratic base. And Democratic leadership has made no secret of their wish to avoid a senate trial where the outcome feels predetermined, permitting Trump to claim total exoneration going into the 2020 election.
Why then proceed with impeachment? Setting aside the possibility that opinion could change once witnesses are paraded in front of the public, there is a critically important institutional reason to impeach. Donald Trump is systematically dismantling the judicial and administrative guardrails that constrain him and is enabled by a party dependent on him for their survival. Impeachment would utilize the Democrat’s most powerful constitutional mechanism to push back. It would allow Congress to go on record to say that Trump’s behavior is not acceptable, that he does not deserve the office he holds. It would set down a marker that it is not allowable to put personal profit ahead of national security, accept assistance from hostile powers, and obstruct justice. It would say unambiguously that Trump’s actions are not normal — and should disqualify him from serving as president.
And make no mistake — it would be a historic rebuke. Despite Trump’s bravado, it’s unlikely Trump really wants to be part of a club that includes only Andrew Johnson and Bill Clinton (Richard Nixon gets honorable mention for resigning from office while articles of impeachment were working their way through Congress).
No president has ever been convicted in an impeachment trial. Johnson came very close, while Clinton was acquitted of charges far less serious than those leveled against Trump, but impeachment hangs heavily over their respective legacies. The act of impeaching instantly changes a president’s political posture by placing him under a cloud of doubt, independent of the question of removal from office. And contrary to conventional narratives, the exercise didn’t exactly hurt the political prospects of the impeaching parties. Shortly after contentious impeachment trials, Republicans replaced Johnson with Ulysses Grant and Clinton with George W. Bush. Democrats won the 1976 election two years after Nixon’s resignation.
Democrats are correct to worry about the politics of acquittal in a senate trial, but the answer to that problem is right in front of them. Don’t hold the trial. Take a page from the administration and run out the clock. Democrats can upend the conventional wisdom that September is the absolute last chance to begin the process by acknowledging that it is probably their last chance to begin impeachment with the goal of removing Trump from office — but argue for the inherent value of continuing the investigation to wherever it leads. This allows them to keep fighting in the courts for the right to evidence and testimony they will need in order to conduct months of hearings (and it will likely be months) next year. Democrats may tell you that hearings taking place during the presidential primaries will be a distraction. Far from it. Hearings that coincide with the presidential primaries will put Trump’s criminal behavior on display and set up Democrats for the general election campaign. They just shouldn’t leave enough time for a trial, where an acquitted Trump stands to gain the political initiative. Instead, they should take a page from Mitch McConnell’s playbook and say that the public can decide in November if they want to re-elect the impeached incumbent.
Moving ahead with impeachment would clarify the different roles of congress and the public with respect to holding the president accountable. The fashionable, facile argument that impeachment is unnecessary because Americans will get the chance to oust Trump in next year’s election puts the emphasis on removal from office and overlooks the constitutionally-mandated role that Congress — and only Congress — plays in passing judgment on the unacceptability of the president’s actions. It’s not our job to hold the president responsible for his misdeeds. But imagine the powerful cues Congress would send to the public as we’re deciding how to vote by making Trump run for re-election as an impeached president, with his record exposed in impeachment hearings and woven into the eventual Democratic nominee’s messaging about renewal and restoration.
Won’t all this seem partisan? Well — have you been paying attention? Of course it will! Partisanship is unavoidable in an era of polarized public opinion. But it will also communicate strength and conviction (something the relentless coverage of internal Democratic bickering certainly does not) and the timing could not be better, coming as it will during a presidential campaign destined to divide the country into two camps.
Won’t it distract the Democratic candidates from getting their messages to the public? No more than the myriad distractions provided daily by Trump’s twitter fingers. Democrats must know by now that next year will be a series of escalating distractions. But impeachment would be the biggest “distraction” of all, and it would give Democrats a rare opportunity to control the agenda.
I know this isn’t the election Democrats want to run. They want to run on kitchen table issues that poll well for them like health care — issues that helped them win in 2018. And they can. But they are not going to have the luxury to run on those issues alone, regardless of whether they impeach. Trump has made it clear he is going to run an us-versus-them white nationalist campaign and Democrats are going to have to answer. Promises of unity and comity will ring hollow; we are heading for a big election that will require taking sides. Democrats can talk about issues, of course, but in the context of a larger message that promotes the values Trump rejects. Values that resonate with Democrats and non-Trump independents. Values with the potential to unite that large share of the country living outside the Trump base. Values like integrity, accountability and justice. There is no better way for Democrats to draw contrasts with Trump’s America than by shining a light on his actions through impeachment hearings and saying this is not ok.