Tuesday, May 07, 2019


Jonathan Bernstein makes a novel argument against impeachment: Democrats, he says, shouldn't attempt it because impeachment limits their ability to constrain and punish Trump.
... impeachment ... makes some potentially unpopular Trump actions irrelevant — that is, if they aren’t specifically among the impeachment charges. Some of that material, including all those contacts between the Trump campaign and Russians detailed in the Mueller report, may still make Trump look bad. It might reflect very poorly on him and his associates. But if it’s not relevant to impeachment, no one is going to pay attention to it once the question becomes one of removing the president or not....

Impeachment also creates a framing of the question that makes it easier for Republicans to remain unified, and may even lose support among some neutral outside opinion leaders.... The Bill Clinton impeachment demonstrated how easy it is for a party to stick together even if they disapprove of the president’s actions once removal becomes the only important question.

... And after a party-line vote to acquit [in the Senate]? Trump would surely take that as an indicator that he could continue with every one of his assaults on the rule of law and the Constitution, not only safe from an implausible second impeachment, but with the assurance that the Senate had certified all his actions to date as perfectly acceptable. Even continued oversight hearings on any Trump abuse up through the impeachment would be difficult to justify after bringing him to trial and losing.
That last point gives me pause -- it's not just that Democrats will have failed to remove Trump, it's that he'll be able to say he was exonerated. And having survived impeachment, he'll be free to do whatever the hell he wants, especially in (God help us) a second term, secure in the knowledge that no one's going to try to do that to him again.

But is this how it all worked out after the impeachment of Bill Clinton? No one really believed that Clinton had been exonerated -- he'd just been spared what most Americans regarded as an excessive punishment. And Republicans continued to talk about Clinton as a morally compromised figure. Unable to remove him office for covering up an affair, they just went right back to attacking him, particularly on "Chinagate." And the notion of Clinton's corruption permeated the 2000 presidential election. George W. Bush ran as a squeaky-clean born-again Christian who'd "restore honor and dignity" to the White House, the implications of which were unambiguous. Al Gore felt the need to avoid campaigning with Clinton, and to choose a running mate who had been one of Clinton's harshest Democratic critics.

I think Bernstein has a point about wanting to keep the allegations hanging over Trump's head until he can be removed from office by Congress or the voters. The counterargument is that Republicans weren't abashed even in defeat. They kept discussing Clinton as a morally corrupt figure even after the failed impeachment. Ultimately, they won total control of the government.

On the other hand, they never sought to impeach Barack Obama. You'll say that they couldn't find a reason, but I'm sure they could have cooked one up -- Benghazi, Fast and Furious, whatever. What they didn't do is regularly express public doubt about their adversarial acts -- they just held one hearing on Benghazi after another, and didn't do what Democrats would have done, which is express doubts about the wisdom of this course of action within range of reporters' microphones.

That's why I find Nancy Pelosi's decision to publicly take impeachment off the table so exasperating. You might come to the conclusion that it's too politically risky -- but don't tell everyone that you're taking the option off the table. Keep Trump off balance. Let him think he's still at risk. Show no self-doubt. Have a little swagger, a little attitude. It always works for the Republicans.

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