A new wave of impeachment fever has taken hold among Democrats, one that casts removing President Donald Trump from office as a moral imperative. Last week, after Robert Mueller’s dramatic TV appearance, Kamala Harris said that starting impeachment proceedings was “our constitutional obligation.” Cory Booker called it “a legal and moral obligation.” Back in April, Elizabeth Warren said that President Donald Trump’s misconduct “demands that elected officials in both parties set aside political considerations.” Here’s one more, from Richard L. Hasen at Slate: “Members of Congress take an oath to uphold the Constitution and it is their constitutional duty to determine if Trump’s conduct merits impeachment, regardless of the political consequences.”
If the House ever does pass articles of Trump’s impeachment, this will probably be the framing that drives the decision: that impeachment is the only principled stand against not just Trump, but against craven, finger-in-the-wind politics.
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But even if you believe that Trump is a national emergency—a dangerously unchecked president chipping away at democracy every week he’s in office—that doesn’t make impeachment the right move. The evidence from both our own politics and from other countries with Trumpian leaders suggests that impeachment can be morally right, legally justified, and still politically irresponsible. The pro-impeachment wing of the Democratic Party is focused on the first two considerations at the expense of the third.
The idea of treating impeachment as a duty—and, by extension, deliberately ignoring its politics—might be morally satisfying. But it’s dangerous for Democrats and for the nation.
Americans who see Trump as a national emergency—and there are many, from leftists to never-Trump conservatives—have two real goals: first, increasing the chances of removing Trump from office in the short term, and second, strengthening the rule of law in the long term. Impeachment proceedings would set back the first goal and aren’t likely to advance the second.
If the Trump presidency is an emergency, then any action that increases the chances of Trump remaining in office—no matter how morally satisfying that action may be—is reckless. Given the near certainty that the Republican-controlled Senate will not remove him from office, the essential consideration is whether impeaching the president will increase or decrease the likelihood of beating him at the polls in 17 months.
The best assumption is that impeachment will make Trump more likely to win four more years in office. Evidence from around the world makes a compelling case that fighting right-wing authoritarians and populists on the grounds of their personal corruption or lawbreaking doesn’t get the job done. Figures from Silvio Berlusconi to Viktor Orbán to Benjamin Netanyahu to Nigel Farage have all been attacked on those grounds—and still won election victories in the face of scandals on the scale of Trump’s. To their supporters, “our guy’s” corruption is excusable or even laudable.
If Trump’s first election led many of us to reasonably and belatedly downgrade our confidence in American exceptionalism—it can happen here—then we need to put that lesson to use: it can happen here again if we don’t learn from oppositions who have tried corruption-centered strategies and failed. Democrats’ performance in the 2018 midterms, in fact, was a master class in successfully opposing right-populism: through a single-minded focus on its material consequences for voters. Last November, nearly all of the damaging findings from the Mueller Report had already been widely publicized, along with evidence of Trump’s tax fraud, along with Trump’s taped admission of sexual assault—and yet the winning campaign’s focus was not Trump, but health care.
Impeachment would represent a retreat from that strategy. Its very drama and personalization works against Democrats, because it would pull attention away from their best case at displacing him. It would focus voters on the Trump Tower meeting instead of student loan forgiveness, the firing of James Comey instead of protecting and building on Obamacare. Nancy Pelosi was right: in 2018, the Democrats ran, and won, on policy. If pro-impeachment Democrats believe that putting the president’s crimes at the heart of the party’s message will lead to a better result in 2020, they should make that case. Instead, they’re ostentatiously refusing to make it.
Yet even if you think that impeachment increases the odds of a second Trump term, you might still believe that that risk is worth taking in order to deter future presidents from committing impeachable acts. Warren has made the most powerful case for taking the long view: “To ignore a president’s repeated efforts to obstruct an investigation into his own disloyal behavior would inflict great and lasting damage on this country, and it would suggest that both the current and future presidents would be free to abuse their power in similar ways.”
But that argument is based on two very shaky assumptions. The first is that Democrats’ best efforts at precedent-setting will mean anything at all if Trump wins another term, consolidates his power, and continues reshaping the judiciary. They won’t.
The second assumption is that impeachment followed by instant acquittal would be any kind of deterrent for future abuses of power. On the contrary, the signal would be that presidents can abuse their power as long as their party controls one house of Congress.
For Democrats—or any Americans—anxious about what they’re witnessing, the question isn’t so much how to create theoretical deterrents to future presidents’ wrongdoing as it is how to transform the actual Republican Party into the kind of organization willing to stand up to it. That’s a generational project, but the best way to start it is by defeating Republicans in elections, winning political power, and using that power to begin rolling back the undemocratic features of our political system—from voter suppression, to gerrymandering, to the overrepresentation of white, rural states in the Senate, to the Electoral College—that allow minority rule.
That’s the irony in Warren’s embrace of impeachment. In developing an ambitious policy agenda aimed at American oligarchy, she’s worked from the premise that our problem is not so much Trump as it is the political and economic structures that made Trumpism possible. But in lending her moral authority to impeachment, she’s supporting a step that would effectively center the Democrats’ message on Trump himself.
That would be a serious mistake. Wherever Democrats think Trumpism comes from—whether they blame Russian election interference, economic dislocation, xenophobia, or some unholy combination of the three—they won’t be able to redress the conditions that enable it without winning and using power. If impeaching the president advanced that goal, Democrats should support it. If it doesn’t, they shouldn’t. Treating that goal as somehow beside the point is irresponsible, not principled.
What Democrats need most right now isn’t moral conviction about Trump’s awfulness, but political judgment: the ability to calculate complicated causes and effects, to read the political moment in all its specifics, and to make a choice in the absence of certainty.
Earlier generations called that quality “statesmanship.” There’s good reason for those of us on the left to be skeptical of that term, with its narrow and gendered implications about who gets to wield political power, and its clear whiff of elitism. I don’t want to give up on the idea that movements of ordinary people can drive political change, or that, say, labor leaders like Philip Randolph or Dolores Huerta are as capable of “statesmanship” as senators and presidents. But I don’t want to give up on the idea that that word stands for, either: that there is such a thing as political judgment, that it’s a meaningful kind of expertise, that it’s separate from and complementary to expertise in policy, and that it’s one of the main qualifications for political office. Nancy Pelosi may not be an expert communicator, but her success in winning the only two House majorities for Democrats since 1994, and in pushing through the most ambitious piece of social legislation since the Great Society, suggests that she has this kind of expertise, and that we shouldn’t take her advice lightly.
To treat impeachment as an obligation, a kind of constitutional absolute, is to demand a moral certainty that politics can’t provide. Even when Democrats share the same objectives, getting to those objectives means estimating a score of complicated, interacting probabilities, simultaneously, in real time. Insisting on that point isn’t weakness or triangulation or “overthinking.” It’s just thinking.
The case against the impeachment of President Trump is based on moral compromise, uncertainty, and calculated deference to experts. It doesn’t fit on a bumper sticker. But the easy case for impeachment—“the right thing is obvious, expert judgment is irrelevant, tell the politicians to stop playing games and get on with it”—is scarily reminiscent of the case for Trump. “Statesmanship,” scare quotes and all, is the antithesis of both, not least because it’s about helping people accept that politics cannot and should not always be morally satisfying.