Thinking Through Impeachment

The beginning of impeachment proceedings against President Trump will almost certainly define the last stage of his presidency, and potentially the future of both parties.

It’s still far too early to know what the results of the impeachment inquiry may be. We are at the beginning of what could be a very long stage of this presidency, and potentially the final one. It’s important to stress, however, what little we actually know. The evidence available to the public at this moment amounts to a series of allegations made by an anonymous (and as it appears, credible) whistleblower, which are partly backed up by the transcript released by the White House. 

But no one seems to want to grapple with what impeachment actually is or the consequences to either party. Impeachment is, frankly, an odd and not particularly effective way of curbing abuses of power by the President — plain old elections have been markedly more effective. What many supporters of impeachment want it to be clashes with the procedure itself; they want a legal proceeding but they will get politics. 

Impeachment is, at root, political. Its deliberately vague standard is laid out in the Constitution —high crimes and misdemeanors — and it is facilitated by elected representatives. The three times that articles of impeachment have been introduced, they’ve been for violating an ambiguous statute and holding up Congress’ agenda, for covering up “dirty tricks” by a presidential campaign, and lying about infidelity in the Oval Office. 

Some things which haven’t been deemed to merit impeachment: detaining and torturing inmates in secret offshore prisons, declaring war (in all but name) and toppling governments without any congressional input, aggressively prosecuting and attempting to silence federal whistleblowers, and refusing to enforce laws passed by the people’s representatives. Keep in mind, these are all from the 21st century.

Try identifying a clear standard with that particular data set.

So Democrats will inevitably be forced to do real politics if they decide to get serious about impeachment, which means making a convincing case for something that has never been done before: using the Senate to remove a President. This goes a long way towards explaining Speaker Pelosi’s obvious reluctance to impeach. The chances that an impeachment investigation quickly finds evidence so irrefutable that Senate Republicans are compelled to abandon the President seems unlikely, and it’s not like the GOP is producing many Profiles in Courage moments at present. It’s more likely that the House finds evidence that is damaging enough to dampen Republican enthusiasm at the polls and check the President from further abusing his power. The worst case for Democrats is that this investigation becomes as drawn-out and inconclusive as the Mueller investigation, with the public becoming desensitized to just another case of Washington infighting.

Something between the second and third scenarios seems like the most plausible, and that’s where the danger lies. Most immediately, the implication of Hunter Biden in the investigation poses the greatest threat yet to Joe Biden’s presidential chances; it will be too easy for Trump to paint Biden as an avatar of casual Washingtonian self-dealing. By extension, the investigation threatens Democrats’ best shot at taking back the White House. Biden has led in all 70 head-to-head polls against Trump, averaging a ten-point lead. Leads, of course, can evaporate quickly, but this is some of the most favorable polling in the modern era; the last candidate to do so well at this point was FDR.

By contrast, Senator Elizabeth Warren, who may benefit the most if Biden is damaged by the allegations against his son, has half that lead and an agenda that is broadly unpopular with the general electorate. She may have a plan for that, but it seems unlikely that it’s a winning one.

The first outcome of impeachment, overwhelming evidence of wrongdoing followed by a bipartisan conviction, which is also the least likely, would be the best for our constitutional order. Actually, the best would be an ethical President, but that seems like wishful thinking at this point. Transitioning to a lame-duck President Pence would also, as Ross Douthat wrote in the New York Times this weekend, be the last best chance for Republicans to decide what kind of party they want to be after Trump. 

Will it be a party that sees Trump’s 2016 victory as a final repudiation of Reagan’s fusionist legacy, attempting to create a populism free of the abject racism and incompetence — again, this might be wishful thinking — that’s defined this administration? This kind of GOP, exemplified in some ways by young senators Marco Rubio and Josh Hawley, would be more culturally conservative, market-skeptical, and willing to make the kind of class-based arguments that Democrats, with their shift towards a more upper-middle-class and lower-upper-class base, are increasingly eschewing. Hawley’s introduction of bills that would heavily regulate social media companies, or Rubio’s advocacy for child tax credits and paid maternity leave, are examples of what directions this GOP could head in.

It’s a possibility, but the more likely outcome is that Reagan-ish, Club for Growth conservatism will snap back into place, less a result of institutional and intellectual vitality than inertia. Trump ran against this wing of the party, but he did almost nothing towards creating an infrastructure that would shape the GOP after he was gone. In fact, much of his presidency has been an exercise in incompetently pushing decades-old GOP economic orthodoxy, such as the tax cuts and deregulation.  In this iteration of the Republican party, people like Senator Ben Sasse and former Governor Nikki Haley would lead the way. Cutting deficits, encouraging trade, pushing for a grand compromise on immigration, and asserting American leadership abroad would return as legislative priorities.

Given that it is far too early to say anything concrete about which directions the impeachment inquiry will head in, the paths forward for the two parties is becoming clearer. For Democrats, the left wing of the party may finally seize control over its leadership. Like 2016, the personal weaknesses of the establishment front-runner are elevating the progressive challenger. For Republicans, the post-Trump reckoning has come a step closer, and the opportunity for a clean break is there, if unlikely. For both parties, however, impeachment will have consequences beyond the last year of the Trump administration. 

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