The opposition party’s success depends on how they handle the impeachment question.
Over the past year, the Democratic Party has been concerned with the question of what to do about President Donald Trump. Democrats have been united in the short term in opposition to nearly every legislative effort by the president, including tax cuts and the repeal of the Affordable Care Act. But in the long term, Democrats have been divided over the desire to impeach the president for his many conflicts of interest and general unfitness for office. Representatives like Al Green of Texas and Steve Cohen of Tennessee and have introduced articles of impeachment. Major donors like Tom Steyer, who has lambasted the president as “one hell of a demagogue,” have launched their own impeachment drives. At the same time, party leaders have argued that they must let the Mueller investigation play out before taking action on impeachment. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi took a strong position on the issue in April, saying, “I don’t think we should be talking about impeachment… On the political side I think it’s a gift to the Republicans.”
Which side is right? Do Democrats need to prioritize impeachment to mobilize their base and stop a kleptocratic administration? Or should they wait on the impeachment question for fear of rallying their opposition?
The question of impeachment and its impact on political fortunes is uncertain. Conventional wisdom dictates that voters will turn against a president’s party when the president has been credibly accused of and politically indicted (impeachment being a constitutional and political form of indictment). The best examples of this dynamic occurred in 1868 and 1974. In 1868, it was clear that Democratic President Andrew Johnson had committed severe constitutional violations, most notably an attempt to create his own personal army to intimidate Congress. The constitutional scruples of some senators, as well as the trumped-up nature of some congressional charges, led to Johnson being saved from removal. His party’s political fortunes were destitute, however. Democrats lost the next four presidential elections and did not control either house of Congress for the next six years.
While Richard Nixon never tried to start his own army, his other offenses were more clearly criminal than Johnson’s. Nixon facilitated a number of felonies, from burglary to money laundering and obstruction of justice. His case was clearer and would have resulted in an overwhelming vote for removal had he not resigned. The electoral damage to his Republican Party was shorter but just as severe: the poorly organized and lackluster Democratic Party won a landslide congressional election in 1974 and the presidency in 1976.
Many writers and political scientists think that the conventional wisdom broke down in 1998, when the majority-Republican Congress impeached Democratic President Bill Clinton. They point to the president’s continued high approval rating, a bipartisan group of senators who voted against removing Clinton from office, and the Democrats’ extraordinary 1998 midterm victories as proof. However, the impeachment’s longer-term damage to the Democratic Party appeared in the 2000 presidential election. Al Gore decided to distance himself from the popular Clinton name even though he had been Clinton’s vice president. In a close election year, this uncertainty was a contributing factor to Gore’s election loss and the ensuing control of the House and (temporarily) the Senate by Republicans.
What about 2018? The three examples above show that impeachment can be a powerful political weapon. Democrats should not abandon impeachment as a means to expose Donald Trump as a criminal unfit for office. However, today’s hyperpartisan climate make the results of a failed impeachment proceeding more untenable for Democrats. If Democrats fail at impeachment proceedings, Republicans will rally closer to their president and his legacy, feeling that Democrats had manufactured charges against their rightfully elected leader. A failed impeachment would be a greater turnout machine for Republicans than even a 2020 Hillary Clinton presidential campaign.
Therefore, Democrats need to stow the impeachment talk for now. There is no Mueller report yet. There is not even a bipartisan Senate report on Russian election meddling. Democrats must give Tom Steyer his money back and be patient. They will have one chance. The country’s millions of Democrats are counting on them not to blow it.