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How the Democrats Blew Trump’s Impeachment

It's far from clear that the halting, narrow approach to holding the president accountable will have a lasting effect on the public imagination.

Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty

Throughout the day Wednesday, the impeachment of President Trump was compared variously by Republicans to the Salem Witch Trials, Pearl Harbor, and the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. As of 4 p.m., September 11 remained untouched. But the day is still young—the House will vote on its articles a little after 7 p.m., bringing an end to the first stage of a process that so far, behind all the allusions and grandstanding, has been remarkable mostly for its banality.

Fittingly, a substantial proportion of Speaker Pelosi’s speech to the House was taken up by the Pledge of Allegiance. “The republic, for which it stands, is what we are here to talk about today,” she intoned afterward. “A republic, if we can keep it.” It’s easy to see why this line of Franklin’s has become one of Pelosi’s favorites throughout the inquiry: Bringing the Founders into view lends gravity to the proceedings, and the quote is decent shorthand for the argument that failing to hold Trump accountable for his wrongdoing would be a terrible and potentially destabilizing betrayal of the values underpinning our government, including the idea that no one, not even the president, is above the law. This being true makes it all the more galling that Pelosi opposed impeachment so strenuously for so long. For two years, Democrats urged Americans to follow Robert Mueller’s investigation of President Trump and Russian interference in the 2016 election. It ended with Mueller providing Congress with no fewer than 10 instances of Trump potentially having committed obstruction of justice. Surveys showed at the time that a plurality to a majority of Americans understood and opposed Trump’s wrongdoing.

But the consensus that has emerged in the months since is that the Mueller investigation ended with a muddle and that it would have been politically difficult to advance an impeachment on the grounds it provided. A republic if you can keep it—if the political stars are aligned. Had the Ukraine scandal not subsequently emerged, threatening to make the Democratic Party look even more implausibly feckless than it’s accustomed to looking, it’s likely that we wouldn’t be witnessing an impeachment at all, on any grounds. As it stands, the party has chosen to pursue impeachment on the narrowest grounds possible, establishing a precedent that a president may well consider himself above the law so long as he commits many more offenses than his critics are willing to police.

On Wednesday, Trump’s defenders continued an incoherent campaign of misdirection. Judiciary Committee ranking member Doug Collins used his speech to hand-wave the articles against Trump away. “Abuse of power, because they can’t actually pin anything of factual basis on him,” he said. “The president did nothing wrong in this issue. And then they’re going to talk about obstruction of Congress. You know, obstruction of Congress, as I’ve said before, is like petulant children saying, ‘We didn’t get our way when we didn’t ask the right way and we didn’t try to go after and make a case.’”

This was the entire day—dueling minute-long speeches from backbenchers and seat-warmers about the oath of office, and overturning election results, and partisanship, and the Founders, and so on. None of it matters much. Following an initial spike in support after the inquiry was officially backed by Democratic leadership, the polling numbers on impeachment have stalled—this despite the fact that public hearings have taken place and even as the revealed details of the case have gotten worse for Trump. It seems especially clear now that the jump in the inquiry’s popularity was driven by Democrats responding to their party’s leadership signaling that impeachment was the right move. It’s also clear that pursuing impeachment isn’t likely to hurt Democrats in an election set to take place almost a year from now.

Absent a radical change in direction, we’ll never know if a more expansive and more drawn-out impeachment process would have mobilized the base or swayed more voters. If nothing else, a different process might have offered both the American people and history more of a glimpse at what this president and this White House have been doing behind the scenes. What we’ve been given instead, behind the gestures and symbolism, is another glimpse at the fundamental nature of the Democratic Party, which, at its best, can be relied upon to do the safest and most perfunctory version of “the right thing to do” that it can devise.