Congressional Democrats are on the wrong side of impeachment politics
On Jan. 13, 2021, the day the House of Representatives voted to impeach President Trump, Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) told her colleagues that the domestic terrorists “did not appear out of a vacuum. They were sent here, by the president, with words such as a cry to ‘fight like hell.’ … The president saw the insurrectionists not as the foes of freedom, as they are, but as the means to a terrible goal: the goal of personally clinging to power.”
Those who voted to impeach almost certainly agreed with Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah): if incitement to insurrection is not an impeachable offense, what is?
A compelling case has been made that President Trump threatened the integrity of democratic institutions, interfered with the peaceful transition of power, and imperiled the Congress of the United States. And Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) may well be right that a “constellation of scholars from across the political spectrum” have debunked claims that impeaching a president who has left office is unconstitutional.
Nonetheless, it is increasingly clear that Congressional Democrats are on the wrong side of impeachment politics. Here’s why:
Democrats should have known at the outset — despite the assertion of Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), that he had not made up his mind — that 17 Republicans in the U.S. Senate would not vote to convict Mr. Trump. Now that 45 of them have publicly declared that impeaching a former president is unconstitutional, giving themselves cover to criticize Trump’s behavior on Jan. 6 while voting to acquit, the outcome of the trial is obvious. As Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) told reporters, “just do the math.”
An impeachment process initiated and dominated by Democrats is reinforcing the view of millions of aggrieved and angry members of Trump’s base that Biden, Pelosi, Schumer and company are motivated by hate, vengeance, and fear of the former president — and willing to do anything to ensure that he cannot run for public office again. An acquittal is certain to stoke their grievance culture — and boost the ratings of the likes of Sean Hannity and Tucker Carlson. It may turn off some independent voters, only about half of whom currently favor conviction.
A trial will also slow down confirmation of President Biden’s Cabinet nominees and consideration of his legislative agenda, including a COVID-19 “stimulus package” that includes funds for ramping up vaccinations, payments to Americans struggling to make ends meet, and aid to states and localities. For this reason, in early January some suggested a censure resolution instead of impeachment, an approach that might have attracted more support from Republicans. Speaker Pelosi initially wanted Vice President Mike Pence to convene Cabinet officers to invoke the 25th Amendment and remove Trump from office. Following the House vote on Jan. 13, James Clyburn (D-S.C.) recommended that the Senate wait 100 days before starting a trial.
Although he did not endear himself with impeachment hawks, Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) was on to something when he declared soon after the House vote that it was “ill-advised” to take this action at the moment Biden “was coming in, trying to heal the country, trying to be the president of all the people, when we are going to be so divided and fighting again.”
President Biden, it appears, shares the concerns expressed by Clyburn and Manchin.
As President-elect, the Washington Post reported, Biden indicated he did not see the practical need to impeach so close to Trump’s departure from the White House. Following his inauguration, Biden told CNN that impeachment “has to happen,” probably because the train had left the station and he saw no gain in picking a fight with his fellow Democrats. Biden hoped, however, “that Senate leadership will find a way to deal with their constitutional responsibilities while also working on the urgent business of this nation.”
The train has left the station. As if to prove the point, Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) now claims censure may be better than a trial. By “doing that,” Kaine says, “we would use time for something that we could be using for COVID, which I think is just so dire right now.”
Majority Leader Schumer, however, insists “there will be a trial.” And so, it seems to me, the best course of action for Democrats now is to stop talking about preventing Trump from running again; emphasize Congress’s responsibility to hold him accountable for encouraging a mob to attack the Capitol; shorten the trial proceedings; move on — and hope that a successful rollout of the vaccine will be a shot in the arm for our country that might inoculate Americans against demagoguery and violence.
Glenn C. Altschuler is the Thomas and Dorothy Litwin Professor of American Studies at Cornell University. He is the co-author (with Stuart Blumin) of “Rude Republic: Americans and Their Politics in the Nineteenth Century.”