There is a Political Case for Impeachment. Democrat Leaders just need to see it
Democrats should look to the Senate cycle of 2020 if they need to see a political argument
Last week, Dan Pfeiffer, former Spokesman to Al Gore and Senior Advisor to Barack Obama (and co-host of Pod Save America), wrote a piece detailing to the Democrats a plan to win the impeachment fight. Currently, for reasons I do not fully accept anymore, Nancy Pelosi is opting for a slow and steady approach to the ‘i word’. In the meantime the demands of multiple Congressional Committees are getting ignored on her watch as if they are irritating school children, not an essential, lawful part of government.
By now then, the Constitutional argument has surely been sown up in Pelosi’s mind. In fact, only yesterday, the New York Times produced a really great piece on what exactly the Articles of Impeachment against Trump could look like, using Nixon’s and Clinton’s as a blueprint.
While the NYT piece is forensic, primarily focusing on the Mueller Report and the subsequent unlawful actions of the administration, namely, ‘withholding relevant and material evidence or information from lawfully authorized investigative employees of the United States, including congressional committees’. Dan’s piece, drawing on his political experience, seeks to address what appears to be the major stumbling block for the Democratic leadership to clear before they fully embrace impeachment of Donald Trump.
What, exactly, would the political consequences of pursuing impeachment be this close to an election and when it is still not a popular option with most voters?
Understandably then, Pelosi and colleagues will look to historical precedent. Support for Nixon’s impeachment lagged even when the formal proceedings started. A Gallup poll of February 1974 (the month his hearings began) found that only 38% supported it and Nixon’s popularity was still sitting quite handsomely at 59%.
Parking, for a moment, the fact that it is Congress’ Constitutional duty (not a nice little add on for when the time feels right) to hold the President to account, and it is the leaderships job to…well, lead, not follow, public opinion. Most people, including myself, can sympathise — at least to a small degree — with the political risk of Pelosi’s dilemma.
A growing idea is that for impeachment to be politically successful, it needs to be understood in a wider context than just Mueller. Of course, there is precedent for this. Despite Nixon’s impeachment being dominated by the consequences of Watergate, Article IV related to the bombing of Cambodia and Article V was mainly about Nixon’s failure to pay taxes.
For Trump, even today, the British newspaper, The Times (not to be confused with the NYT), ran a piece showing how his administration sold nuclear technology to the Saudis after the brutal murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi… in secret! Throw in the fact that Trump has encouraged foreign companies to invest in Trump Hotels and/or Mar-a-Lago to gain influence in his government, or the fact the administration has taken children off their parents and then literally lost their information, or the fact Trump pardoned Conrad Black, a convicted fraudster, simply because he wrote a nice book about him.
Imagine the names and faces that could testify against such abhorrent abuses of power. Imagine the story that could be told across the nation?
Much of the conversation around the political consequences of impeachment has been centred on the impact it would have on the Democrats’ chance of taking the White House. In November 2020, obviously that is the main prize, but there are also 34 Senate seats up for election, in a cycle much more appealing to the Democrats than 2018 was. If the Democrats are going to remove Trump from office via impeachment in his first term, they will need the minimum support of 66 Senators. That then, in and of itself, is a possible argument against impeachment; simply, the Democrats will fail in its ultimate objective.
Another reason why impeachment might not be politically attractive at the moment is that Trump could simply become the master of his own demise. I have written before about his tanking support in the key states of Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania, and conventional wisdom dictates that if Biden is the nominee, he will eat even further into Trump’s dwindling support. Why risk a Pence election when Trump is awful enough?
Once more, a poll this week showed Trump losing to all ‘top 5’ Democrat candidates in Texas (!). If Trump continues this trend, as logic appears to dictate, then why drag the county, the party, and the entire government machine through an ugly and partisan impeachment battle?
If we accept the definition of insanity as doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results, however, then trusting polls — the ones that had Hilary winning in an absolute landslide — might not be the most solid source of Democrat strategy. They may have to look elsewhere.
One way of mitigating at least some potential political risk, is to push for impeachment as quickly as possible using the Senate 2020 cycle as the impetus.
Impeachment would draw upon Senators from states where Trump’s support has dropped from 2016 and force both moderate Republicans and those who have flip-flopped on supporting him who up for re-election in 2020 to go on record and vote in Congress on whether Trump is fit for office or not.
Specifically, I wanted to look at races in five states. I am sure there are more, but the Senators up for re-election in these five states would all have a profoundly uncomfortable decision to make, and all for slightly different reasons. But crucially, all of whom would benefit the Democrats. This diversity is also really powerful for the Democrats as it would allow them to produce targeted, personal campaigns, where the Senator in question would have no where to hide. A vote on impeachment would be career defining for these Senators.
First up, I have Cory Gardner of Colorado who beat Democrat, Mark Udall, in 2014 by less than 2% points. While Gardner’s policy positions have been broadly in line with the Trump administration’s — although he did oppose the Muslim ban executive order — the interest here comes from the state of Colorado’s rapidly declining support for Trump. For consistency, I will use data from Morning Consult to demonstrate popularity trends. Their website shows that Trump’s support in Colorado has fallen 15% since he first took office. Colorado voted Democrat in 2016 fairly comfortable and their 9 electoral votes will almost certainly be blue again next year.
For Gardner, not only does he have to endure a state wide decline in Republican support, but according to the CU Boulder American Politics Research Lab’s polls from January 2019, the Senator only holds on to a 26% approval rating among the Colorado consensus, down from his 43% approval rating in 2016. FiveThirtyEight also give him a ‘Trump Score’ of 89.6%, the second highest of any Republican from a 2016 Democrat voting state. If the Democrats were to push impeachment through the House, Gardner would have to go on record before he attempted to be re-elected in a state likely to vote Democrat. Gardner could be in serious trouble if he votes in favour of Trump. A win for Democrats.
The second example is Joni Ernst’s seat in Iowa, although this is important for a different reason. Unlike Gardner, who’s state support for Trump and personal appeal has fallen to the point where forcing an impeachment vote could be the final nail in the coffin, Iowa voted Trump in 2016 and Ernst’s popularity is sky high at the moment. Despite the fact that Iowa does have a habit of supporting the Presidential winner (in all cased since 1988 except for Gore), that won’t be the Democrats’ primary interest.
Ernst’s difficulty will come form her historic support for impeachment. In 2014, when asked about Obama’s recess appointments, Ernst referred to the then President as a ‘dictator’ who should be ‘removed from office’ or face ‘impeachment’. She also said he is ‘running amok’ and ‘not following our Constitution’.
Hold on, though, because since then, Ernst has urged Congress to move on from Mueller — be careful what you wish for, Joni. The Senator is also palpably close to Trump, FiveThirtyEight give her a ‘Trump Score’ of 90.7%, significantly higher than what would be predicted based on her previous voting behaviour and her states partisan lean. She was also reported to be a Trump VP pick, too.
Ernst appears to have got herself into an extremely difficult position then. Expressing support for Obama’s impeachment then going on to cosy up to probably the most corrupt administration in history. All the while, the Democrats will be going after Iowa’s 6 college votes at a national level, not least because Trump’s approval there has (you guest it) fallen hard (-21% since taking office). Democrats: Force Ernst to vote.
Third in line should be Susan Collins of Maine. She secured a resounding victory against Shenna Bellows, taking all of the state’s counties with nearly 70% of the vote to secure her forth term. Even now, she has a popularity rating of 53%, putting her well within the top quarter of Senators.
Furthermore, while all electoral college votes are important, Maine’s split system only gave the Democrats 3 votes in 2016. The crux of Collins, however, is her status as a moderate. Collins is, to my knowledge, one of only three current Republican Senators to go on record supporting Roe Wade (Shelley Moore Capito and Lisa Murkowski). This is about as far away from the Republican mainstream opinion on abortion as is possible from someone in the same party.
Similarly, on LGBT issues — another target of Trump’s tantrums — Collins is only one of six Republicans who voted against the Federal Marriage Amendment which sought to ban same-sex marriage. She was also the primary Republican sponsor of the Don’t Ask Don’t Tell Repeal Act, 2010.
Finally, she has supported Democrat candidate, Kirsten Gillibrand, in opposing Trump’s transgender military ban and has urged the administration to ‘put an end’ to the separation of children policy at the border; voting to reject the emergency declaration. All this has contributed to her achieving the lowest ‘Trump Score’ of any Republican member of Congress — 57.3%.
If she votes against impeachment, then she risks handing the state to the Democrats and dirtying her reputation as a moderate, bipartisan, and general opposer of the Trump administration. If she votes for impeachment, then the Democrats are one step closer to removing the President from office. A win, win.
The final two examples provide a combination of the circumstances of the aforementioned three. Both come from states that the Democrats can realistically target for the Presidency in 2020 as well.
North Carolina Senator, Thom Tillis, beat Kay Hagan in 2014 by 1.5% of the vote. An impressive win for the Republicans; Hagan was the incumbent and was leading in 12 of the 15 polls approaching election day. As a state, though, North Carolina is sticking to the national trend, with Trump’s support falling 22% points since taking office. NC has voted Republican in the last two elections, but the Democrats will certainly have it on their target list next year. Not least because polling this month by Emerson College has shown that almost all major candidates could beat Trump.
There are, however, other reasons why Democrats would be wise to push against Tillis’ Senate seat. Despite voting with Trump policy 94.7% of the time, and having a 93.7% ‘Trump Score’ by FiveThirtyEight, Tillis has flipped on Trump before.
In fact, he is a brilliant example of what New York Vision 2020 call ‘one of the more interesting political phenomena in recent history… the mass flip-flop of ideological conservatives in the direction of Donald Trump since they overwhelmingly opposed him in the 2016 Republican primaries.’
For example, Tillis has acted against Trump’s cancellation of DACA, but, after a conservative push against him, which included threatening a primary challenger, he quickly changed his mind and voted for the emergency declaration. Tills also backtracked on support for Congressional subpoenas, specifically against Donald Trump Jnr, again, under threat from a primary challenger. Tills is clearly worried about his seat, so Democrats, make him vote on impeachment and guarantee he has something to worry about.
Finally, the curious case of Martha McSally and her special election. McSally so desperately wants to be in the Senate. Even after losing to her colleague, Kyrsten Sinema in 2018 after Jeff Flake’s seat became vacant, McSally was effectively gifted the junior Senate seat by Governor, Dough Ducey on an interim basis. She nonetheless faces an election in 2020.
Clearly coming from the same school of thought as Tillis, McSally was keen to distance herself from Trump in 2016. Not only did she not endorse him, but she also went further, stating Trump’s comments on sexual assault are ‘disgusting’ and ‘unacceptable’. However, something weird happened, in August 2018, McSally criticised the media for being obsessed with Trump’s character and said that she is personally unconcerned. Quite a switch, Martha!
On a policy level, too, the Senator has withdrawn her previous support for DACA, indeed, trying to white-wash any mention by even removing videos from her website. This was, of course, after she became one of only ten GOP members of Congress to write to Paul Ryan asking for a legislative solution for those under DACA status. McSally’s flip flopping has given her the sixth highest ‘Trump Score’ in Congress. To contextualise just how radical that is for a Senator from Arizona, you have to go down to Marco Rubio, 37th on the list, before you get to a member of Congress who represents a state that gave the Republicans a smaller margin of victory in 2016.
Democrats: McSally was never elected in the first place. Make sure she never is. Force her to vote in an impeachment trial and then see how the people of Arizona like it.
I recently read that at this point in the 2016 general election cycle, Trump was polling at 1% and Jeb Bush was the favourite. No body who has literally been alive in the last three years thinks the next three will be in any way straight forward. There are millions of votes to be cast, thousands of op-eds to be written, and (in the Democrats’ case) dozens of candidates to drop out before we can even begin to claim an understanding of what 2020 will look like.
But time does not stand still either. And, however unpopular the Democrats like to think Trump is, the Republicans still have the Senate and they still have the White House. The power of that combination has been shown already, perhaps no more so than in Trump’s successful appointment of two conservative justices to SCOTUS.
By now, impeachment is unquestionably the Constitutional thing to do. It is only politics stopping Pelosi. The fact is, however, that with a coordinated, multi-faceted, disciplined, ruthless campaign, the Democrats could do the right thing — begin impeachment — but also go a long way to winning back the Senate as well.
Do not be kind to these Republicans, lets take them in 2020.