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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Impeachment: The Downside for Democrats

Jeff Alson ruminates on the possible reverberations of impeaching Trump in his article “The Impeachment Trap: Be Careful What You Wish For: Trump is odious, but impeachment is dangerous—both for the Democrats and the progressive movement” at In These Times. Alson, “an engineer from Ann Arbor, Michigan, who grew up in Trump country,” offers some sobering insights, including:

…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.

…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.

Alson could also have noted Pence’s track record of voter suppression. As recently as October 4th, Pence, as Governor of Indiana, ordered state police to raid and shut the state’s largest citizen-run voter registration program because it was registering a lot of African American voters. As Ari Berman noted in his article, “Trump’s Commission on ‘Election Integrity’ Will Lead to Massive Voter Suppression: It will be led by Mike Pence and Kris Kobach, who have a very long history of making it harder to vote.” in The Nation:

Two days after firing FBI director James Comey and creating a full-blown constitutional crisis, Donald Trump signed an executive order today creating a presidential commission on “election integrity,” based on his debunked claims that millions voted illegally in 2016.

Vice President Mike Pence will be the chair and Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach will be the vice chair—two men with very long histories of making it harder to vote, especially Kobach. Given the lack of evidence of voter fraud, the commission seems designed for one purpose: to perpetuate the myth of fraud in order to lay the groundwork for enacting policies that suppress the vote.

If you want to know what such voter intimidation looks like, take a look at Pence’s home state of Indiana, where state police in October 2016 raided the offices of a group working to register African-American and low-income voters. They seized thousands of voter-registration applications, even though only 10 were suspected to be fraudulent and no one has been charged.

Think about it. Using state police to suppress African American voter turnout. Few governors in recent years have gone quite that far.

Many progressives, Democrats, and even moderates, are eager to impeach Trump, as much for his obnoxious personality, as for his politics. Increasing numbers of people are feeling ‘Trump fatigue,’ and are tiring of his arrogance and the daily embarrassment he provides. At least Pence comports himself more like an actual grown-up. It’s understandible, but that doesn’t make it a good strategy for Democrats. As Alson brings brings it into focus:

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.

Alson also worries that “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 seems a tad overstated. Yes, the hard core Trump supporters would likely feel this way. But it’s just as likely that many of Trump’s working-class supporters are tiring of Trump’s act. In any event, Democrats shouldn’t worry too much about what they can’t change.

Alson argues more persuasively:

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.

Alson believes that Democrats would benefit more if Republicans actually lead the impeachment effort because it would further divide the GOP as we approach the 2018 midterm elections. So far Republican leaders have not indicated much interest in leading the charge. But the nut graph of Alson’s article describes a more plausible scenario:

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.

At The New York Times, Ross Douthat proposes an alternative to impeachment, “The 25th Amendment Solution to Remove Trump,” which charts an equally complex and tortuous route to Trump-removal. It would require approval of a majority of his cabinet officers and a two-thirds vote of congress. But don’t bet the ranch on his cabinet minions risking the ire of their wingnut supporters by dumping Trump.

“If the Trump presidency continues to unravel and a constitutional case for impeachment can be made,” adds Alson, “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.”

Call it political akido, allowing Republicans to drain their chi and what is left of their political capital on deepening their internal divisions. “Either way,” argues Alson “Democrats can focus their energies on mass resistance and rebuilding an electoral majority.” Further,

…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.

It is an appealing scenario, even if it is rooted in wishful thinking. “Republicans are in a political straitjacket,” concludes Alson, “—unless Democrats commit political suicide by falling for the impeachment trap.” No doubt, an equally compelling counter-argument for strong Democratic leadership for impeachment can be made.

Either way, timing is all-important, and there is every reason for Democrats to milk Trump’s damage to the G.O.P. brand for as long as possible, culminating in a rout favoring Dems in 2018.

One comment on “Impeachment: The Downside for Democrats

  1. pjcamp on

    If you’re waiting for Republicans to lead impeachment, you’ll be waiting for a long time. This is not the party of 1970. The one thing Ryan and McConnell have been most clear about is the importance of party over country. So long as they get their tax cuts, who cares about a little obstruction of justice or burning intelligence assets?


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