Not Impeaching Has Political Costs Too

As Nancy Pelosi and House Democrats weigh the potential electoral risks of beginning impeachment proceedings, they must also consider the risks of not doing so.
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Nancy Pelosi greets Donald Trump ahead of his inauguration ceremony in 2017.

Nancy Pelosi greets Donald Trump ahead of his inauguration ceremony in 2017.

Democrats have been arguing among themselves for a while now about whether to move ahead with impeachment against President Donald Trump. As the party mulls what decision to make, what it should understand is that either route will have important consequences for this presidency and for future ones: Just as impeaching may come with a political price, not doing so might too.

To perhaps a surprising degree, the impeachment debate so far has been less about whether there are grounds for it and more about the political costs in pursuing it. On the former question, there is considerable basis for impeachment. The Mueller Report provided quite damning evidence of multiple counts of obstruction of justice; every week we are witness to Trump's violations of the emoluments clause; his intimidation of federal witnesses; his ignoring congressional subpoenas and ordering others to do the same; his massive campaign finance violations; and his other actions that fall easily into the definition of "high crimes and misdemeanors." Impeachment articles were drafted against Richard Nixon for less (and against Bill Clinton for far less). And at least within Democratic circles, this does not appear to be in dispute.

The question among Democrats, rather, is what to do with this. Do they attempt to hold the president accountable to the law using (thanks to the Department of Justice's own guidelines against indicting a sitting president) the only means available for doing so, knowing that this most likely would not result in Trump's removal and could carry a political cost in the next election? Or do they decide to not pursue impeachment, instead carrying out a series of congressional investigations of the White House and pressing their case in the courts? Or do they simply turn their attention to other matters?

As I suggested in April, the case that voters will punish Democrats for pursuing impeachment, while treated as orthodoxy by many, is far from clear. We've had three attempts to constitutionally remove a president from office, only one of which led to possible political reprisal against the party making the attempt. And that one, against Bill Clinton, is really not a very apt example, given that Clinton's approval ratings were 25 to 30 points above what Trump's are now and that Clinton was being impeached for far less serious infractions.

But even if we assume there would be a political price for impeachment, that does not mean that declining to impeach would be without consequence. For one thing, if there are voters who would be bothered by impeachment, there are quite a few others who would be bothered by the lack of it. The idea that Trump has clearly committed impeachable acts but Democrats in the House of Representatives won't punish him because they think it will hurt them in the next election is not a particularly inspiring message, especially for a party that keeps urging people to put country before party.

On top of that calculus, it's entirely possible Trump wins re-election whether Democrats pursue impeachment or not. He's won before, incumbents usually win re-election, and they almost always do during a growing economy. What's the lesson coming out of that election? "We might have removed him but failed to so here he is for another four years"?

It's important to consider just what the lessons of this presidency will be for subsequent administrations and congressional parties. If Democrats decide that, despite widespread lawbreaking, impeachment just isn't on the table because conviction is unlikely and there may be political costs, then it would effectively remove impeachment as a serious constraint on presidential actions. And given that the Department of Justice has also removed itself from control of the president, that would basically mean that presidents truly are above the law as long as they serve.

My impression of the recent actions by Speaker Nancy Pelosi and other Democratic leaders is that they are moving toward impeachment, but slowly. If she was sure she had enough votes to impeach, she'd probably have pushed the vote already, but the caucus is clearly uncertain about the right move. Continued investigations will likely build support for impeachment and possibly reduce Trump's popularity.

But fairly or not, Democrats have been placed in the position of determining whether to prosecute presidential lawbreaking. Either choice may have negative consequences, but the decision should be evaluated not just in terms of what will happen this year or next, but for the decades to come.

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