A fair question, but not a terribly difficult one from Aaron Blake, especially for those who still remember 1998. By unilaterally tying impeachment to the chances for Senate removal, Blake argues in the Washington Post, Nancy Pelosi has handed control of the process to Senate Republicans. How likely are they ever to support impeachment, Blake wonders, no matter what Robert Mueller or House Democrats dig up through their investigations?
That’s the point, but we’ll get back to that in a moment:
It means Democrats are effectively giving the Republican Party veto power over whether Trump should be impeached. They are saying that, even if the evidence is damning in their minds, unless Republicans agree, they shouldn’t move forward. Their impeachment standard isn’t so much the Constitution’s “high crimes and misdemeanors,” but rather “high crimes and misdemeanors that Republicans agree upon.”
It’s theoretically possible that something would emerge — either from these House investigations, special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s investigation or the Southern District of New York — that could build that bipartisan consensus. But Trump and his allies have built a firewall against all that. They have convinced a strong majority of the Republican Party (71 percent) that Mueller’s investigation is a witch hunt. The Republican Party has largely shrugged off Trump being implicated in a bona-fide crime — Michael Cohen’s campaign finance violations. And the idea that Republicans will be swayed by Democrat-led investigations moving forward is pretty fanciful.
Impeachment, it has often been said, is a political solution to presidential wrongdoing — not a legal one. The Constitution’s standard for impeachment is very much open to interpretation, because “high crimes and misdemeanors” isn’t defined. The public didn’t want to remove Bill Clinton from office, even though he committed what Kenneth Starr determined to be 11 impeachable offenses, including lying under oath and obstruction of justice. Even a proven crime by Trump — or multiple ones — may not rise to the level of impeachment.
But to leave that determination concerning a Republican president up to Republicans is to effectively cede the power Democrats won in the 2018 election to hold Trump accountable.
Does it, though? Pelosi says nothing about shutting down investigations by House committees, which are expected to multiply over the next two years. She also doesn’t entirely preclude impeachment, either. All Pelosi argued was that impeachment requires some bipartisan support for it to be effective, which is patently obvious. The point of impeachment isn’t to censure a president, which the House can do on its own at any time, but to remove a president by forcing the Senate to hold a trial for that purpose. If there isn’t bipartisan support for removal or a trial, then there’s not much point in spending time on impeachment.
We’ve seen the result when the House pursued impeachment despite the lack of consensus across the aisle for that action. Republicans ended up getting burned in 1998’s midterms after a voter backlash raised confidence in Bill Clinton. Republicans later claimed a moral victory by saying that Clinton would be forever stained by the impeachment vote. Twenty-one years later, the Clintons amassed a nine-figure fortune by trading off their names, and Hillary Clinton only missed out on a Clinton Restoration to the White House out of her own sheer incompetence.
The political lesson from 1998 is still obvious. Being confident in your own outrage isn’t enough to succeed at impeachment. It’s much safer to stick to elections when replacing presidents, unless someone digs up an actual crime large enough to convince both parties that the president has to go.
Pelosi’s problem isn’t that she handed a veto to Republicans. It’s that she waved a red flag in front of her own caucus, and as I note in my column today at The Week, that hasn’t turned out well for Pelosi so far this year:
Pelosi became the nation’s first woman to serve as speaker in the House of Representatives in 2007, but lost the office four years later when Republicans retook the majority in the 2010 midterms. She spent the next four election cycles fighting to regain the majority, refusing to step down and allow newer voices to rise to leadership. When Democrats made a comeback last November by winning back the suburban districts that had abandoned Democrats after the passage of ObamaCare, Pelosi won an internecine fight within the caucus to retain her iron grip on the gavel.
Two months later, Pelosi still has the gavel. But the two-term speaker has lost her grip on her caucus and on the agenda. Instead of organizing the new Democratic majority under her direction, Pelosi suddenly finds herself out of step with the newest generation within it — and retreating rather than taking charge.
The bottom line: Pelosi has enough headaches on her plate without resorting to a divisive fight over impeachment.