House Democrats’ impeachment equation of maximum control and minimum risk is reversing. Now that Democrats have begun what they had only been pretending — real impeachment — their control will decrease, and their risk will increase. As with the “sweet science”: Every boxer is a champ in his own training camp, but it is a very different thing once you enter the ring.
Democrats have made full use of their strictly controlled quasi-impeachment inquiry. It has been their process, their rules, their subpoenas, their witnesses, their leaks — in short, their story — and with no incriminating vote. This monopoly has allowed them to write the headlines without worrying about what might appear beneath them.
This maximum control has yielded Democrats minimum risk. Their “vulnerables” have been protected, because they avoided going on record by voting. Their extremists were emboldened, because they can unabashedly play to their base. And their moderates were insulated, able to follow the political winds of the moment.
For Democrats, it has been like hitting an opponent with both arms bound — a political punching bag. Anyone looks like Rocky under such circumstances — do it long enough and you delude yourself into believing you actually are. This is Democrats’ danger as they eagerly scrambled into the ring with their first vote on impeachment proceedings.
Now that Democrats have decided to pursue impeachment, things will change quickly. Voting on articles of impeachment will magnify their risks further. Will these be stringent enough for the extremists? Will they be too stringent for the moderates? In either case, their vulnerables again will have to vote and forever be on record that they believe the president should be removed.
From there their risks will increase greatly. So long as impeachment stays in the House, Democrats stay in control; once it leaves, they stray into trouble. In the Senate, the control passes to the Republicans — and the risk passes to the Democrats.
In the Senate, there will be real debate for the first time, and one with real rules. Republicans will go from few rights to equal ones. For the first time, Democrats will be in a ring where their opponent can punch back.
News coverage will be more two-sided, because there finally will be two sides to cover. The audience too will be far larger. Those Americans who had paid no attention before will now. What looked like any other vote in the House will look like no other vote in the Senate, with all senators in their desks and the Supreme Court’s chief justice presiding. Democratic prosecutors, who seemed so large in the House, will look small on the Senate floor.
Americans also will see for the first time the enormity of the event, as the proceedings change from political theater to constitutional drama. For all but the partisans, this will offer a chance for reappraisal; just as Clinton’s impeachment offered two decades ago, many will take it.
In the House, Democrats have been lured in by their “fixed” fight. But in the Senate, they will find that while they can run, they cannot hide. They will be too far in to turn back, and the “easy” votes they took on articles of impeachment in the House will look progressively tougher, as the Senate trial drags on. The acquittal – very possibly bipartisan and a majority, but already a virtual certainty – will make them look worse still.
Democrats’ impeachment equation is about to flip. They are pretending that what they are doing now is a formal process. It is not. Instead, it is a one-sided affair in which their adversary cannot participate.
For Democrats, this is not boxing; it is not even sparring. But they are under the misperception that it is. This all will begin to change now that they have taken their first vote — actually doing what they have until now only been claiming: Pursuing impeachment. Their control will disappear and their risk will loom increasingly larger.
Now that this has begun, Democrats will learn the difference between a faux fight and a fair fight. Many will find themselves in the political fight of their lives, while others will find themselves fighting for their political lives.
J.T. Young served under President George W. Bush as the director of communications in the Office of Management and Budget and as deputy assistant secretary in legislative affairs for tax and budget at the Treasury Department. He served as a congressional staffer from 1987-2000.