The Impeachment Trap: Be Careful What You Wish For

Trump is odious, but impeachment is dangerous—both for the Democrats and the progressive movement.

Jeff Alson May 16, 2017

Progressives need to think hard about the real implications of potential impeachment. (Gage Skidmore / Flickr)

Don­ald Trump’s abrupt fir­ing of an FBI direc­tor who was lead­ing the inves­ti­ga­tion of the Trump campaign’s pos­si­ble col­lu­sion with Rus­sia has sparked a new flur­ry of calls for impeachment.

Impeachment would help restore the damaged Republican brand.

The impulse is under­stand­able. Comey’s fir­ing is just the lat­est in a litany of out­ra­geous behav­ior that’s shred­ding the cred­i­bil­i­ty of the pres­i­den­cy: from the finan­cial con­flicts of inter­est to the patho­log­i­cal lying to the author­i­tar­i­an attacks on the judi­cial branch and the press.

But out­rage aside, we must keep one thing in mind: how pro­gres­sives and Democ­rats approach impeach­ment could shape our democ­ra­cy and the domes­tic polit­i­cal land­scape for a gen­er­a­tion. We must focus on what is best for the Amer­i­can peo­ple, not on what is worst for our so-called pres­i­dent. I believe it would be a major strate­gic blun­der for the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty to fall for what I call the Impeach­ment Trap — the pow­er­ful temp­ta­tion to lead the charge for impeach­ment with­out con­sid­er­ing the strate­gic implications.

Since nei­ther impeach­ment in the House of Rep­re­sen­ta­tives nor con­vic­tion in the Sen­ate are pos­si­ble with­out Repub­li­can votes, it is a waste of time and ener­gy for Democ­rats to pro­mote impeach­ment in the absence of any Repub­li­can sup­port. I am most con­cerned about the sce­nario where one or more lead­ing Repub­li­cans come on board and entice Democ­rats to lead a suc­cess­ful impeachment.

The sim­ple major­i­ty nec­es­sary to impeach in the House of Rep­re­sen­ta­tives, as well as the two-thirds major­i­ty that is required to con­vict in the Sen­ate, can be achieved with the sup­port of most or all Democ­rats and a minor­i­ty of Repub­li­cans. Unfor­tu­nate­ly, this sce­nario would offer enor­mous polit­i­cal ben­e­fits to the Republicans.

If Trump were impeached and con­vict­ed, Vice Pres­i­dent Mike Pence, a right-wing, evan­gel­i­cal ide­o­logue, would be a much more reli­able and com­pe­tent rub­ber stamp for the con­ser­v­a­tive pol­i­cy agen­da. Trump, for all his fail­ings, can­not be count­ed on to sup­port con­ser­v­a­tive Repub­li­can ortho­doxy. While his cab­i­net picks and ear­ly pol­i­cy pro­pos­als have large­ly catered to right-wing ide­ol­o­gy, his pol­i­cy flip-flops and incom­pe­tence make him a very unre­li­able part­ner for con­gres­sion­al Repub­li­cans. In par­tic­u­lar, his posi­tions on Rus­sia, trade, enti­tle­ments, and deficits are anti­thet­i­cal to Repub­li­can dog­ma, and recent­ly Trump even applaud­ed Australia’s sin­gle pay­er health care sys­tem. And thus far, most of his attacks on immi­grants and Mus­lim refugees have been turned aside by a wall of pub­lic out­rage and judi­cial rul­ings, although we will need to remain extra­or­di­nar­i­ly vig­i­lant about an embold­ened ICE. Pence, on the oth­er hand, who was giv­en a 99 per­cent rat­ing from the Amer­i­can Con­ser­v­a­tive Union, would be much more like­ly to cut Social Secu­ri­ty, push Nation­al Right to Work, and try to restrict gay mar­riage, and would prob­a­bly treat immi­grants and refugees just as bad­ly, in order to court the Trump base.

Impeach­ment would also help restore the dam­aged Repub­li­can brand. Trump lost the pop­u­lar vote by the largest mar­gin of any incom­ing pres­i­dent in his­to­ry. His admin­is­tra­tion is mired in incom­pe­tence, chaos, and sus­pi­cion, and has already sparked a mas­sive pub­lic resis­tance. His pub­lic approval rat­ing hov­ers around 40 per­cent, by far a record low for a new pres­i­dent. If these trends con­tin­ue, his pres­i­den­cy will be a mas­sive alba­tross around the GOP’s neck in future elections.

By con­trast, the robot-like Pence — despite his extreme right-wing views — would be pack­aged as a com­fort­ing return to nor­mal­cy. The relief at no longer hav­ing an ego­tis­ti­cal lunatic at the helm could pro­vide Pence with a long and gen­er­ous pub­lic opin­ion hon­ey­moon. Repub­li­cans could claim that Trump was nev­er one of theirs,” and approach the 2020 cam­paign with the ben­e­fit of incum­ben­cy and with­out Trump’s liabilities.

Demo­c­ra­t­ic own­er­ship of impeach­ment would also cement the loy­al­ty of work­ing-class Trump vot­ers to the Repub­li­can Par­ty. Repub­li­can incum­bents in swing dis­tricts could spin impeach­ment as a par­ti­san witch hunt. Trump would become a mar­tyr, and his vot­ers would blame Democ­rats. This is a ter­ri­ble out­come for pro­gres­sives who want to move the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty back to its eco­nom­ic jus­tice roots.

Most impor­tant to pro­gres­sives, Demo­c­ra­t­ic own­er­ship of impeach­ment would sac­ri­fice the his­toric oppor­tu­ni­ty to inte­grate the mas­sive anti-Trump resis­tance into a revi­tal­ized pro­gres­sive move­ment and Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty. A short-term focus on impeach­ment would divert the focus of many activists away from less glam­orous, but more impor­tant, grass­roots orga­niz­ing, coali­tion build­ing, and pol­i­cy advo­ca­cy, and decrease the like­li­hood of mass grass­roots mobi­liza­tions on crit­i­cal issues such as health care, immi­gra­tion, Planned Par­ent­hood, elec­toral reform, cli­mate change, and so many others.

For these rea­sons, I believe a suc­cess­ful impeach­ment led by Democ­rats would be a colos­sal mistake.

Of course, Repub­li­cans may well decide that impeach­ment is in their best inter­ests and lead the charge. This is a slight­ly bet­ter sce­nario for Democrats.

While Repub­li­can own­er­ship of impeach­ment still achieves the first three polit­i­cal ben­e­fits dis­cussed above — a more reli­able and com­pe­tent right-wing pres­i­den­tial rub­ber stamp, pro­tec­tion of the Repub­li­can brand, and a stronger incum­bent for 2020 — the last two out­comes would now favor Democ­rats. With Repub­li­cans own­ing impeach­ment, Trump sup­port­ers would be livid with the Repub­li­can Par­ty, some with­draw­ing from pol­i­tics alto­geth­er or splin­ter­ing off to sup­port minor par­ties, oth­ers per­haps will­ing to recon­sid­er a Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty refo­cused on eco­nom­ic jus­tice. The com­bi­na­tion of Repub­li­cans los­ing core Trump sup­port­ers and ongo­ing demo­graph­ic trends would put Democ­rats in a very favor­able posi­tion for 2018 and 2020 and beyond. Most impor­tant­ly, the ener­gy and enthu­si­asm of the anti-Trump resis­tance would not be divert­ed to impeachment.

More­over, this sce­nario gives Democ­rats lever­age, as Repub­li­cans would need Demo­c­ra­t­ic votes to get the two-thirds Sen­ate major­i­ty nec­es­sary for con­vic­tion. Ulti­mate­ly, Democ­rats will have to back impeach­ment, as it would be polit­i­cal sui­cide not to. But Democ­rats can pub­licly demand key con­ces­sions in exchange for their sup­port: First, that Repub­li­can lead­ers clear­ly own impeach­ment by draft­ing the charges and whip­ping a sig­nif­i­cant num­ber of GOP votes, and sec­ond, that Repub­li­cans refrain from push­ing rad­i­cal right-wing leg­is­la­tion until after the 2020 election.

Can Democ­rats pub­licly defend a strat­e­gy of sup­port­ing impeach­ment only if the Repub­li­cans own and lead it, as well as demand­ing con­ces­sions from Repub­li­cans? Absolute­ly. Sim­ply put, Repub­li­cans birthed,” enabled and elect­ed Trump. Repub­li­cans have staffed his Cab­i­net, sac­ri­ficed their prin­ci­ples to cut deals with him, and made count­less excus­es for his out­landish behav­ior. The pub­lic will under­stand that, if impeach­ment is war­rant­ed, the Repub­li­cans have the respon­si­bil­i­ty to lead the charge.

Para­dox­i­cal as it may seem, how­ev­er, the best sce­nario for Democ­rats is one in which they resist the impeach­ment trap, the Repub­li­cans stand by their pres­i­dent, and Trump, odi­ous as he may be, remains in office. Admit­ted­ly, this would extract a major toll on the nation­al psy­che and require an active resis­tance to thwart Trump’s attacks on mar­gin­al­ized groups, but the coun­try would (prob­a­bly!) sur­vive. From a pol­i­cy per­spec­tive, a par­a­lyzed Trump admin­is­tra­tion would be far bet­ter than a more com­pe­tent and reli­ably right-wing Pence pres­i­den­cy. Polit­i­cal­ly, Trump would become a black eye for the GOP, and the Demo­c­ra­t­ic oppo­si­tion would remain ener­gized, all of which would favor the Democ­rats in both 2018 and 2020. An espe­cial­ly deli­cious sce­nario is one in which an unpop­u­lar Trump insists upon run­ning in 2020, and the Repub­li­can Par­ty is torn apart by a war between Trump sup­port­ers and the Wall Street, evan­gel­i­cal and lib­er­tar­i­an fac­tions that each want to reclaim their” party.

If the Trump pres­i­den­cy con­tin­ues to unrav­el and a con­sti­tu­tion­al case for impeach­ment can be made, Democ­rats can force Repub­li­cans into a per­ilous Catch-22 over whether to own it. If Repub­li­cans refuse, they will like­ly fail to achieve much of their pol­i­cy agen­da, risk per­ma­nent dam­age to their par­ty brand, and weak­en their future elec­toral chances. If they do own impeach­ment, they blow up the ten­u­ous Repub­li­can-Trump coali­tion. Either way, Democ­rats can focus their ener­gies on mass resis­tance and rebuild­ing an elec­toral majority.

Repub­li­cans are in a polit­i­cal strait­jack­et — unless Democ­rats com­mit polit­i­cal sui­cide by falling for the impeach­ment trap.

Let me empha­size that I am not argu­ing against pur­su­ing the truth about pos­si­ble Russ­ian col­lu­sion through a spe­cial pros­e­cu­tor, nor against hold­ing Trump respon­si­ble for finan­cial con­flicts of inter­est. And I agree that Democ­rats must ulti­mate­ly vote for a Repub­li­can-led impeachment.

But I am argu­ing that it would be a major strate­gic mis­take for us to focus on impeach­ment as a top strate­gic goal, there­by siphon­ing ener­gy from the pro­gres­sive move­ment. As deplorable as Trump is, we must focus our efforts in the next four years on block­ing bad pub­lic pol­i­cy and mobi­liz­ing for the future, and those goals are bet­ter served with Trump than with Pence. If the Repub­li­cans fig­ure this out, let them be the ones to expend their ener­gy get­ting rid of Trump.

It won’t be easy to resist the temp­ta­tion to humil­i­ate the worst pres­i­dent in mod­ern his­to­ry, but Democ­rats must muster the dis­ci­pline to resist the Impeach­ment Trap, insist that Repub­li­cans be the ones to take respon­si­bil­i­ty for their shame­ful pres­i­dent, and mobi­lize to build real grass­roots demo­c­ra­t­ic pow­er for 2018, 2020 and beyond.

Jeff Alson is an engi­neer from Ann Arbor, Michi­gan, who grew up in Trump country.
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