The Memo: Will impeachment create an even more polarized nation?

The Memo: Will impeachment create an even more polarized nation?

A highly polarized nation is about to face a new test: impeachment.

In almost three years since President TrumpDonald John TrumpRepublicans aim to avoid war with White House over impeachment strategy New York Times editorial board calls for Trump's impeachment Trump rips Michigan Rep. Dingell after Fox News appearance: 'Really pathetic!' MORE was elected, the nation has seen its schisms grow deeper and more jagged. It’s a change that has been propelled mainly by the president’s words and actions but also by the fervor of his critics.

Now, the question is whether there is any possibility of impeachment inquiries revealing new information so damning that it transcends partisan allegiances and creates the beginnings of consensus — or whether the battle lines will be drawn more boldly.

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Some political insiders respond to the suggestion that impeachment could cause a worsening of polarization with a sardonic question of their own: How much worse could it get?

“Will it make it much worse? I doubt it,” said GOP strategist Matt Mackowiak. “The country is very divided now. Opinions on impeachment will break down along the same lines as opinions of Trump do. Only if the numbers are different will it make a measurable difference.”

Trump critics would argue that it is superfluous to fret about the polarizing effects of impeachment proceedings. Nothing, they say, could be more polarizing than the president’s behavior, which has included telling nonwhite congresswomen to “go back” to where they came from as well as frequent volleys of name-calling against the media, his political opponents and even some former members of his administration.

Other experts say there is a possibility, however slight, of impeachment blurring the nation’s partisan lines. The defense of Trump by elected Republicans regarding the most recent revelations — the president was shown to have pressured the president of Ukraine to investigate 2020 Democratic front-runner Joe BidenJoe BidenNew York Times editorial board calls for Trump's impeachment Graham invites Giuliani to testify about recent Ukraine trip Booker leads other 2020 Dems in petition urging DNC to change debate qualifications MORE — has not been as vigorous as during some earlier controversies.

On Friday night, The Washington Post and The New York Times reported more damaging stories for Trump. The former reported he had told Russian officials during a 2017 Oval Office meeting that he was not concerned about the Kremlin’s interference in the 2016 U.S. election; the latter asserted that the White House had restricted access to reconstructed transcripts of phone calls Trump had with Russian President Vladimir PutinVladimir Vladimirovich PutinSenate confirms Trump's Russia ambassador Trump is right to shake up NATO Budowsky: Would John McCain back impeachment? MORE and members of the Saudi royal family.

Could Republicans finally reach some kind of breaking point with Trump? Maybe.

“If the impeachment process is done properly, which I believe it will be, I do not see it increasing polarization at all,” said Allan Lichtman, a history professor at American University and the author of a 2017 book making the case for Trump’s impeachment. “In fact, it might slightly decrease polarization because some of Trump’s supporters might come to feel it is just not worth standing up for him anymore.”

Any signs of that kind of movement are slight for the moment. Rep. Mark AmodeiMark Eugene AmodeiBillboards calling on House Republicans to 'do their job' follow members home for Thanksgiving Trump's defenders are running out of options Avoiding the snake in the grass: Let's not allow impeachment to divide us MORE (R-Nev.) on Friday became the first GOP member of Congress to support an impeachment inquiry over the Ukraine revelations — though he made clear he was backing the process, not the actual act of impeaching the president. 

Rep. Justin AmashJustin AmashGroup of House Democrats reportedly attended the White House ball Group of Democrats floating censure of Trump instead of impeachment: report Democrats gear up for high-stakes Judiciary hearing MORE (I-Mich.) was still a member of the Republican Party when he said in the aftermath of former special counsel Robert Mueller's report that the president had “engaged in impeachable conduct.” Amash subsequently left the GOP in protest of Trump’s conduct, however.

There has been a notable uptick in support for impeachment in at least one poll conducted since the Ukrainian revelations emerged. 

An NPR-PBS NewsHour-Marist survey conducted on Sept. 25 found 49 percent of adults nationwide in favor of the start of an impeachment inquiry into Trump, while 46 percent were against it. Even at the height of the storm over the Mueller report, a significant majority of Americans were against impeachment proceedings, according to numerous polls.

The White House and elected GOP officials will be keeping a close eye on Trump’s approval ratings among Republican voters. For all the controversies that have dogged him, the president has maintained rock-solid approval numbers with GOP supporters throughout his tenure. Unless that changes, he seems safe from any danger of being convicted in the Senate, where Republicans hold the majority.

When it comes to partisan division, Boston University professor Tobe Berkovitz suggested it would only get worse if Trump were ultimately removed from office, in which case, the professor said, “You would hear from his supporters that this was a coup d’état in America.”

But short of that denouement, Berkovitz expected the GOP line to hold.

“Even if it is proved conclusively that Trump did something that fit the requirements of ‘high crimes and misdemeanors,’ how many Trump supporters are going to get peeled away from him?” he asked. “He is going to say it isn’t proof and it isn’t evidence.”

On the flip side, do Democrats risk getting blamed by voters for injecting another rancorous note into the nation’s politics via impeachment?

It’s one possibility. But the bigger, related danger is that the drama of impeachment will take the focus away from the “kitchen table” issues that helped Democrats win back the House in the 2018 midterms. 

Speaker Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiUSMCA is nice but no model Anti-impeachment Democrat poised to switch parties Grassley urges White House to help farmers in year-end tax talks MORE (D-Calif.) had remained skeptical of impeachment even after the Mueller report’s release for precisely this reason, before changing her mind in light of the Ukraine revelations.

Grant Reeher, a Syracuse University professor of political science, said, “One of the risks for Democrats in 2020 — especially at the presidential level — is that the impeachment process will suck up all the oxygen that otherwise might have been available to make the affirmative case for election. The negative case has already been made, but the Democrats have struggled at times to advance the affirmative case, and indeed one could argue that this was a problem for [Hillary] Clinton in 2016.”

Reeher added, “The president loves to distract, and this is the distraction to end all distractions.”

But for now, the partisan fever is rising, almost by the hour.

On Friday, Trump described his phone call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky as “perfect.”

A few hours later, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-CortezAlexandria Ocasio-CortezDemocrats ask if they have reason to worry about UK result Sanders, Ocasio-Cortez to hold campaign rallies in Los Angeles, Las Vegas Overwhelming majority say social media companies have too much influence: poll MORE (D-N.Y.) called on him to resign.

The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage, primarily focused on Donald Trump’s presidency.