'Impeachment Will Help Republicans' and Other Myths

As Democrats weigh the benefits of impeachment following the release of the Mueller report, here's what history says about the arguments for or against proceeding.
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President Donald Trump hugs the United States flag during CPAC 2019 on March 2nd, 2019.

President Donald Trump hugs the United States flag during CPAC 2019 on March 2nd, 2019.

With the (redacted) Mueller Report now in the hands of the public, Democrats have begun a furious debate over whether or not to seek president Donald Trump's impeachment and removal from office. Notably, the discussion over removing Trump from office has shifted from the mouths of activists and volunteers to those of leading policymakers.

House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer weighed in last week to say impeachment was off the table, while some of his fellow House Democrats disagreed. Senator Elizabeth Warren said impeachment was the most responsible course of action. Other congressional leaders and presidential candidates are still weighing the options.

At this point, what can we say for sure about impeachment? It would consume a great deal of time and attention. The investigation of Bill Clinton and his subsequent impeachment and Senate trial absolutely dominated news coverage in 1998 and 1999 like few other news stories before or after.

Beyond that, however, a lot of the discussion about the political ramifications of impeachment remains pure conjecture. Here's a look at a few of the central questions concerning the process that keep coming up.

Won't Impeachment Fail?

Impeachment is a multi-stage process, which could include substantial and coordinated investigations and hearings, a debate and vote in at least one House committee, a debate and vote on the House floor, and possibly a trial in the Senate, which could only convict and remove Trump from office by a two-thirds vote. Party discipline is very strong these days, and so, yes, there's a decent chance this whole process does not end up removing Trump from office.

But there are lots of unknowns baked into that. Investigations and hearings will turn up more information. Media attention would become more focused on specific abuses of power. Public opinion could and most likely would shift. So could members' likely votes. The political world now is not the same as the one in which members of Congress would actually be voting on impeachment or removal.

Isn't the Public Against This?

That really shouldn't be the standard for determining whether the president has committed impeachable offenses. But if it is, it's worth remembering that less than 20 percent of the public favored removing Richard Nixon from office when Congress first convened its impeachment hearings. That grew slowly as more abuses of power were revealed, and a majority favored his removal only a few weeks before he resigned. The impeachment process itself can change—and has historically changed—public opinion.

Some have suggested impeachment might drive support for Trump. However, the single thing most responsible for high approval ratings for presidents is a strong economy. Trump has that, and his approval rating is mired in the low 40s at best. The idea that there's a latent wellspring of support for Trump is not supported by evidence.

Won't Impeachment Stir Up Trump's Base?

Trump's base is always stirred up! His base was never going to sit back and let the 2020 presidential election season unfold like normal. A plan to not stir up Trump's base is like a plan to bring a baby to a Bruce Springsteen concert but to sit near the back so it won't wake up.

Doesn't the Party That Leads an Impeachment Proceeding Suffer at the Polls in the Next Election?

No one knows for sure what polls would look like should the Senate try but fail to convict Trump, but there isn't historical evidence indicating that impeachment would lead to Republican electoral success.

Republicans led the impeachment and trial of Andrew Johnson in 1868, and they nonetheless made gains in the Congress and won the White House that year. A largely Democrat-led impeachment investigation of Nixon led to his resignation in 1974, and was followed by massive Democratic successes in the mid-terms that year, and Democrats seizing the White House two years later.

Most recently, the GOP was pursuing Bill Clinton's impeachment at the time of the 1998 mid-term elections and ended up losing a handful of congressional seats—which was unusual for an out-party during mid-terms. But they were also going up against a very popular incumbent, buoyed by a strong economy. And, notably, the impeachment vote occurred the month after the election. Later, after Republicans impeached and tried Clinton, there was a presidential election in which the GOP took control of the White House and kept the Congress, with "Clinton scandal fatigue" cited as a source of voter anger with the incumbent party even during a strong economy.

One can also easily imagine that Republican senators protecting an impeached, unpopular, scandal-tainted Trump from removal would not look particularly good for their party in the elections.

OK, Trump's Actions Were Bad, but Is It Really Worth Creating a Constitutional Crisis?

It is not a constitutional crisis to follow procedures delineated in the Constitution. It is a constitutional crisis to ignore those procedures when they are warranted because they're not politically convenient.

Shouldn't We Just Let Voters Decide on Trump's Fitness for Office in 2020?

It is never a good idea to just assume a presidential election will be a referendum on some issue that you care about. A lot of factors go into an election, but the idea that voters will be focused on the one candidates mention in the campaign is foolhardy.

It's entirely possible Trump could win the election despite being scandal-plagued: he did in 2016. And then what? Would Democrats want to claim that the election was a referendum on obstruction of justice and the American people said it's OK? Or what if the popular vote goes one way and the Electoral College goes another? What did the people decide in that case?

There's a good chance impeaching Trump (or not) in 2019 is unrelated to the outcome of the presidential election in 2020. So think about the proceedings this way: If the decision to impeach would have no impact on the election, what's the right thing to do?

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