How to survive an impeachment

How to survive an impeachment
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President Bill ClintonWilliam (Bill) Jefferson ClintonFeehery: Pivoting to infrastructure could help heal post-impeachment wounds Press: Ukraine's not the only outrage The 2 events that reshaped the Democratic primary race MORE relied on public opinion to save his presidency. President Donald Trump can’t do that: He has to rely on his base — a far more divisive strategy.

Trump defends pressuring Ukraine and China to investigate the Bidens as part of his job — just politics as usual. He tweeted, “I have an absolute right, perhaps even a duty, to investigate, or have investigated, CORRUPTION, and that would include asking, or suggesting, other Countries to help us out.”

That’s not politics as usual says Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.), chairman of the House Intelligence Committee: “Encouraging a foreign nation to interfere to help his campaign by investigating a rival is a fundamental breach of the president’s oath of office.” The chairwoman of the Federal Election Commission, a Democrat, warned that “It is illegal for any person to solicit or receive anything of value from a foreign national in connection with a U.S. election.”

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It’s an impeachable offense.

If President TrumpDonald John TrumpDem senator says Zelensky was 'feeling the pressure' to probe Bidens 2020 Dems slam Trump decision on West Bank settlements Trump calls latest impeachment hearings 'a great day for Republicans' MORE is making a play for public opinion, it’s not working.  In the Washington Post-Schar School poll, a strong majority (62 percent) called President Trump’s request to the president of Ukraine to investigate the Bidens “inappropriate.” But the White House may not be making a play for public opinion. The president expects to survive by relying on his base.

Mobilizing the base requires exploiting the country’s deep political division. So far, it seems to be working. Trump supporters don’t see any crime in what the president did. By about two to one (59 to 33 percent), Republicans call President Trump’s request to Ukraine “appropriate.”

With a Democratic majority in the House of Representatives, impeachment may be inevitable. But conviction is not. Democrats have 47 votes in the Senate (45 Democrats plus two independents who caucus with the Democrats). At least 20 Republican senators would have to join them to convict and remove President Trump, since a two-thirds majority is required.

Trump’s army makes up less than one third of the public (the 29 percent who “strongly approve” of the job he is doing as president). But they account for more than two-thirds of Republican voters. That’s enough to dominate GOP primaries. They are Trump’s army, and they will follow the president’s orders to bring down any Republican senator who gets out of line.

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Former Republican Sen. Jeff Flake, a Trump critic who chose not to run for re-election last year, says “There is no love for the president among Senate Republicans.” What there is is fear — “a concern that he’ll get through it and exact revenge on those who didn’t stand with him.”

Bill Clinton was saved by the polls. When the story of his affair with Monica Lewinsky broke in January 1998, congressional Democrats were shocked. Few of them were willing to defend President Clinton publicly — until the polls started coming out.

Clinton delivered his State of the Union speech on January 27, 1998, one week after the Lewinsky story came out. He spoke for nearly 90 minutes without mentioning the scandal. President Clinton laid out a centrist policy agenda on social security, trade, education, welfare reform, health care and fiscal discipline (“We must not go back to unwise spending or untargeted tax cuts that risk reopening the deficit”). The message: I intend to do my job.

And guess what happened? Clinton’s approval ratings soared, from 59 percent just before the State of the Union to 69 percent just after. Suddenly his fellow Democrats rushed forward to defend Clinton on television and on the House floor when they saw that it was safe. President Clinton spoke as little as possible about the scandal for the next year. His approval ratings remained sky high until he was acquitted by the Senate in February 1999. That’s when his ratings dropped back down. Voters no longer had to save him. 

Trump can’t follow the Clinton strategy for survival. Trump’s approval rating has never even reached 50 percent. Trump has to survive by dividing the country — “us” versus “them.”

He doesn’t need the larger electorate as long as his base remains loyal and enthusiastic. It’s a poisonous political strategy driven by endless political rallies. One week Minneapolis and Lake Charles, La. The next week, Dallas.

Trump can’t ignore impeachment the way Clinton did. He has to dwell on it as a constant, looming threat. His base will stand by him unless they see him as betraying them. That’s why Trump pays so much attention to keeping his campaign promises — the wall, the tax cut, ending troop commitments overseas.

The New York Times recently interviewed an anti-abortion voter who opposed Trump in 2016 in favor of Rick Santorum and Mike Huckabee.   Now she says, “I’m not sure those guys I love and admire would have had the guts to do what Trump has done.” She called Trump “a street fighter” and “a gutsy New Yorker” — “the guy who puts the knife in his teeth and swims the moat.”

I once asked a religious right activist whether he admired Trump’s behavior. “I wouldn’t want him to be my Sunday school teacher,” he responded, “but I will support him till the end.”

“Why?” I asked.

“Because he delivers,” the man said.

“What has he delivered?” I asked.

“The thing we have been praying for for 50 years,” he answered. “The Supreme Court of the United States.”

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).