The key impeachment question: What if Trump is acquitted?

Ralph Waldo Emerson once said, “When you strike at a king, you must kill him.” That’s what House Speaker Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiPelosi arrives in Jordan with bipartisan congressional delegation Trump says his Doral resort will no longer host G-7 after backlash Scrap House defense authorization provision benefitting Russia MORE (D-Calif.) has to worry about as House Democrats move closer to initiating impeachment proceedings against President Donald Trump. What if Trump is acquitted?

At this point, a House majority to impeach is still not there. A growing majority of House Democrats is calling for impeachment proceedings, but no Republican has joined them. And right now, the Republican-controlled Senate would be unlikely to convict and remove the president, which would require a two-thirds majority.

The crucial factor will be the polls. Rep. Adam SchiffAdam Bennett SchiffWhite House staggers after tumultuous 48 hours Trump embarks on Twitter spree amid impeachment inquiry, Syria outrage House Republicans 'demand the release of the rules' on impeachment MORE (D-Calif.), chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, said, “I want to make sure, before we go down this road, that we can persuade the public that this was the right thing to do.”

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The public isn’t there yet. While Trump’s job approval rating is still underwater (53 percent disapprove in the mid-September NBC News–Wall Street Journal poll), the polls show limited public support for Congress to begin impeachment proceedings (37 percent in the Politico–Morning Consult poll).

What’s driving public opposition to impeachment? It’s not love for President TrumpDonald John TrumpPelosi arrives in Jordan with bipartisan congressional delegation Trump says his Doral resort will no longer host G-7 after backlash CNN's Anderson Cooper mocks WH press secretary over Fox News interview MORE. NBC News reports that Trump “is more personally disliked than any of his recent predecessors.” Trump’s image is 51 percent negative, compared to 38 percent negative for Bill ClintonWilliam (Bill) Jefferson ClintonDemocrats dig in ahead of Supreme Court ruling on 'Dreamers' Even with likely Trump impeachment, Democrats face uphill climb to win presidency House Democrats risk overriding fairness factor on impeachment MORE, 33 percent negative for Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaEven with likely Trump impeachment, Democrats face uphill climb to win presidency Clinton suggests Russia grooming Gabbard to run as third-party 2020 candidate The Hill's 12:30 Report: Washington mourns loss of Elijah Cummings MORE and 25 percent negative for George W. Bush.

Trump got elected by the rules, and voters do not like the idea of having their decision nullified by politicians. The politicians’ response? We have a constitutional responsibility to uphold the rule of law. As freshman Rep. Tom MalinowskiThomas (Tom) MalinowskiHillicon Valley: GOP lawmakers offer election security measure | FTC Dem worries government is 'captured' by Big Tech | Lawmakers condemn Apple over Hong Kong censorship Lawmakers condemn Apple, Activision Blizzard over censorship of Hong Kong protesters Khashoggi fiancée meets with lawmakers seeking 'justice and accountability' for his slaying MORE (D-N.J.) put it, “If all we do is leave it up to the American people to get rid of him, we have not upheld the rule of law. We have not set a precedent that this behavior is utterly out of bounds.”

The public’s view is, “We’ll be the judge of that.”

Their judgment does not look favorable right now. Half the respondents in the NBC News–Wall Street Journal poll say they would be “very uncomfortable” with the idea of Trump being reelected. Only a third say they would be “very uncomfortable” if either Joe BidenJoe BidenCNN's Anderson Cooper mocks WH press secretary over Fox News interview Yang cautions Democrats: Impeachment might not be 'successful' Ocasio-Cortez: Sanders' heart attack was a 'gut check' moment MORE or Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth Ann WarrenTrump says his Doral resort will no longer host G-7 after backlash Ocasio-Cortez: Sanders' heart attack was a 'gut check' moment Ocasio-Cortez tweets endorsement of Sanders MORE becomes president.

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Charged with abuse of power, President Trump is responding the same way he always responds: with defiance. He defies the Washington establishment, the news media, Congress, science, diplomatic norms, political correctness — and anyone who gets in his way. His supporters love him for it. His wife warned in 2016, “When you attack him, he will punch back 10 times harder.”

Congressional Democrats are betting that this time Trump has gone too far. He has defied the Constitution by soliciting foreign interference in the political process. “I have been very reluctant to go down the path of impeachment,” Rep. Schiff said on CNN. “But if the president is essentially withholding military aid at the same time he is trying to browbeat a foreign leader into doing something illicit — providing dirt on his opponent during a presidential campaign — then that may be the only remedy that is coequal to the evil that that conduct represents.”

What happens if Democrats impeach President Trump and fail to remove him from office? That’s what Emerson warned about: striking the king but failing to kill him (in this case, metaphorically). Leaving a wounded president in office could be costly. An impeachment battle could rally Trump’s army to seek revenge on Democrats at the polls next year.

Even if he loses his bid for reelection, Trump would very likely remain a force in American politics. He may refuse to acknowledge defeat, claiming the election returns are fraudulent. He did that even after winning in 2016. He still insists that he won the popular vote as well as the electoral vote if you discount voting by unauthorized immigrants.

Trump is likely to retain his hold over the Republican Party as long as his army can continue to enforce discipline in Republican primaries.

And something else. The 22nd Amendment to the Constitution says, “No person shall be elected to the office of the president more than twice.” If he loses next year, Trump will have been elected president only once. He would be eligible to run for president again in 2024.

Bill Schneider is a professor at the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University and author of ‘Standoff: How America Became Ungovernable (Simon & Schuster).