No Dems, You Still Shouldn’t Impeach
A point by point rebuttal
This piece was written early on September 24, in the window after news began to break about a rising Democratic tide in favor of impeachment, but before Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s announcement of a formal “impeachment inquiry.” There is a subsequent piece that updates the analysis now that impeachment seems inevitable; it also links back here, since the below covers the risks and downsides that Democrats will now need to navigate in the coming months.
It might be over. The winds have totally shifted following this weekend’s news that Donald Trump tried to jawbone and blackmail the Ukrainian President into a political hit job on Joe Biden: Speaker Pelosi is upping the stakes, moderate freshmen are undergoing a “seismic” mood change, and Democratic and pundit momentum for impeachment has taken hold. Even Joe Biden seems to have tipped.
But still, even at the risk of being the skunk at the impeachment party, I continue to think this is a giant mistake…so I’m going to try to make what might be the last lonely case that Democrats should hold out.
And at the very least, in considering what to do, I implore everyone to focus on one thing: if you truly believe (as I do) that Donald Trump represents a threat to American democracy, then you must do only that which gets him out of office at the soonest possible moment and with the least further damage to our country.
With that in mind, let’s assess the five basic arguments for impeachment one by one, and why they still fall short.
Argument #1: this time it’s different. Some have proposed that the Ukraine scandal is unlike Trump’s other violations of laws and norms (David Leonhardt listed 40 examples). This is at least somewhat questionable. It is egregious, but what is really new ground? Is it that Trump is asking a foreign power to interfere in our elections? Using foreign aid as a political cudgel? Playing fast and loose with our national security by saying crazy things to our frenemies or even hostile foreign powers? Breaking election law? Abusing presidential power for his own benefit? All have occurred multiple times before. The argument seems to be that the Ukraine scandal both combines them and ups the ante, because of Trump’s use of his position as president, rather than as a candidate, to conspire with a foreign power for his own benefit. But even if we stipulate that, does it in itself change the core question for Democrats of whether impeachment gets Donald Trump out of office sooner and with less damage to America? To believe that, you either have to think impeachment is likely to result in conviction (the House impeaches, the Senate has a trial), or that it improves the chances of a Democrat beating Trump in 2020. So…
Argument #2: impeachment might result in conviction. Almost no one thinks this. Conviction takes 67 votes in the Senate, which currently has 53 Republicans. For a taste of how the trial in the Senate would actually go, simply look back a year to the Kavanaugh hearings – most Republican Senators would fall all over themselves to ingratiate themselves to the Republican base by defending Trump (see Graham, Lindsay), not have the scales fall from their eyes.
Argument #3 it would improve the Democrats’ chances in 2020. There are three varieties of this argument, which line up with the three ways one side can beat the other in an election:
3a) It would fire up Democratic base turnout. Hard to figure this one. The base is already in a boiling rage to beat Trump. Turnout in 2020 is already projected to be the highest in a century. Existing opposition to Trump combined with a disciplined focus on health care motivated historic base turnout in 2018…so, how exactly does (failed) impeachment motivate more Democratic turnout in 2020?
3b) It would persuade swing voters. Again, we just watched this movie in 2018: 89% of the Democratic vote increase from 2016 came from flipping Trump voters, which was accomplished by focusing on mainstream economic issues. By contrast, swing voters consistently and overwhelmingly oppose impeachment. How does moving from a proven, effective strategy to an unproven, contraindicated one help?
3c) It would depress the Republican vote. This flies in the face of everything we know about negative partisanship: anger at the other side is the biggest motivator in American politics today (and perhaps in all politics, ever). Democrats are already there. But following an impeachment, Republicans would be too: fired up to protect a President they would view as under attack, and vindicated and motivated by his acquittal. It cannot be emphasized enough: impeachment would actually juice Republican turnout.
Argument #4: Even without conviction, its good because… There are a grab bag of other assertions of value.
4a) It is historically important. If Donald Trump is creating palpable, historic damage to America, what does it matter if there is a note in later histories that he was impeached, then acquitted? When your house is on fire, do you try to put the fire out as quickly and safely as possible, or worry about what the newspaper will say the next day?
4b) It would broadly help the Democrats make their case. What about the past two years makes anyone think Democrats would deliver an effective explainer on the evils of Trump to the American public through an impeachment trial? After Mueller’s televised testimony, despite all of the Democrats’ attempts to lay the case out to the public, support for impeachment went down. Now picture an impeachment. After Republicans throw smoke, sow confusion, lob counter-charges, float media-conspiracy theories, and foment general razzle dazzle, will this be any different? There are no magic environments where only one side gets to talk.
4c) Failing to impeach would embolden Trump. So…we’ve been seeing the restrained Trump thus far? Actually, this argument is completely backwards: it is the aftermath of impeachment that would embolden Trump. Vaccines work, and impeachment acquittal would inoculate Trump in the same way, by exposing him to a weak attack that he would ultimately survive. Remember “no collusion, no obstruction” after the Mueller Report came out? Post-acquittal, Trump would feel that he has truly free rein.
Argument #5: It’s the only option left. Some Democrats have said “we may have no choice now.” But there are options. Jennifer Rubin of the Washington Post suggests censure, noting several big upsides: it requires no Senate action, puts Republicans on the spot to say whether they approve of Trump’s actions in this specific circumstance, drives the Democrats’ corruption message, and at least take a step to hold Trump accountable. It also does not galvanize Republicans in the same way as impeachment, while allowing Democrats to test drive the case more aggressively with the American people. Others have suggested moves like findings of inherent contempt, stepped up fines, and other actions to up the pressure on Trump’s lackeys.
Sum it all up. Impeachment won’t get Trump out any faster. It won’t help defeat him in 2020 – if anything, it throws him a lifeline by rallying wavering Republicans to his cause, and could increase his chances of victory (holding off on impeachment is gut-churningly painful in the face of Trump’s flagrant contempt for our laws…but how would a Trump re-election feel?).
Think it through Democrats, and consider the endgame before your next move.