Amid a stream of revelations, arrests, and plea bargains from Robert Mueller’s investigation of Donald Trump campaign’s connections with Russia, liberals are becoming giddy at the prospect of impeaching the president. “Can Democrats finally start talking about impeachment, Nancy Pelosi?” Errol Louis asked in a column for CNN, referring to the House minority leader. On The View, Joy Behar bubbled with delight when she was handed the news, now revealed to be inaccurate, that former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn was willing to testify that then-candidate Trump had instructed him to make contact with the Russians. (The report was corrected to say that Trump had done so as president-elect.) Some Trump opponents are already looking upon impeachment as a done deal. “He’s going to be impeached, I believe,” Crispin Sartwell wrote at Splice. “I’ve thought so since the election. Michael Flynn is singing. Jared Kushner is likely to be charged in the coming weeks.”
The impeachment frenzy has gone so far that even the normally sober Ezra Klein, Vox’s founder, argued last week that impeachment be normalized as a regular procedure in American democracy. He implicitly acknowledged that we haven’t yet reached the stage where Trump’s impeachability is beyond reasonable dispute (as it was, for example, with Richard Nixon in 1974), but wanted to redefine the rules for impeachment so they apply to Trump, a president who has demonstrated that he is manifestly unfit for office. “Impeachment is not a power we should take lightly,” Klein wrote. “Nor is it one we should treat as too explosive to use. There will be presidents who are neither criminals nor mental incompetents but who are wrong for the role, who pose a danger to the country and the world.... Being extremely bad at the job of president of the United States should be enough to get you fired.”
While it is true that Trump is “extremely bad at the job of president,” using that as grounds for removing him from office would be revolutionary, moving the criteria from the constitutional requirement of “high crimes and misdemeanors,” which is already vague, to the utterly nebulous and subjective “extremely bad.” Klein recognized that normalizing impeachment would turn it into a political weapon, but didn’t wrestle with the fact that this normalization already happened—with the spurious impeachment of Bill Clinton in 1999. That precedent suggests the dangers of further normalization: It will worsen the extreme partisanship and gridlock that is making American ungovernable.
The impeachment enthusiasts should pull back. For both practical and political reasons, this is the wrong remedy for the Trump presidency, even if we stipulate that he has been “extremely bad” and has committed “high crimes and misdemeanors.”
The practical problem is that for impeachment to be meaningful, Trump would not just have to be impeached by the House of Representatives (which requires a simple majority) but also removed by the Senate (requiring a two-thirds vote). It’s easy to imagine a scenario where the Democrats win the House of Representatives in 2018 and have the necessary votes for impeachment. But even in that best-case scenario, in which Democrats win every toss-up race for the Senate, they would still be well short of the votes they need in the Senate. Which means that kicking Trump out of the White House by necessity has to be a bipartisan effort with significant Republican buy-in.
As Peter Beinart pointed out Sunday in The Atlantic, the possibility of Republicans co-operating in removing Trump is dropping even as there’s more evidence emerges that the Trump campaign colluded with the Russians. Beinart correctly noted that “mass Republican defection” from Trump “has grown harder, not easier, to imagine. It’s grown harder because the last six months have demonstrated that GOP voters will stick with Trump despite his lunacy, and punish those Republican politicians who do not.” Republican support for Trump has never fallen below 79 percent since he became president. Republicans who dare criticize Trump, such as senators Jeff Flake and Bob Corker, have crashed in popularity among the GOP base.
The Republican Party has proven that they will tolerate just about anything from Trump. They continue to stand with him despite his demented tweeting, the political support he’s given to Roy Moore, his repeated expressions of contempt for the justice system, and his cavalier threats to launch a nuclear war. Unless Robert Mueller finds the possibly apocryphal “pee tape,” Republicans are likely to remain loyal to Trump. In fact, there’s a real possibility that even if the “pee tape” is real and widely viewed, Trump would still remain politically sacrosanct among his own party.
The most promising route for stopping Trump, then, is through the ballot box. Democrats need a convincing platform and effective organization to win elections at every level. If the party can win back Congress in 2018, it can immediately start hamstringing Trump’s presidency without resorting to the unlikely path of impeachment. Democrats can launch investigations into Trump’s many improper acts. They can stall his nominees, especially in the courts. They can also start laying down rules for reining in the imperial presidency, including the thermonuclear monarchy, so that no future commander-in-chief has the dangerous power Trump possesses.
Impeachment fetishists seem to think that the overriding problem of American politics is that Trump is president. By this analysis, the president is a dangerous outlier whose removal would restore America to normality. But the problem isn’t just Trump; it’s also the Republican Party. Trump is only dangerous because he’s the standard-bearer of a party that has unified control of the government and is willing to stand by Trump no matter what. A Democratic agenda of reining in presidential power will give more lasting victories than mere impeachment, which is unlikely to succeed and would only address a symptom, not the cause, of the cancer that’s ravaging American politics.