Navigating the complex politics of impeachment

U.S. House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff (D-CA) joins Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi to speak about Democratic legislative priorities and impeachment inquiry plans during her weekly news conference at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, U.S., October 2, 2019. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst - RC198FE9B500

As Congress weighs impeaching President Donald Trump, key players are taking different approaches to leadership. The politics of impeachment is complex. Regardless of the lofty rhetoric that some officials offer about it, every person involved is looking out for their political well-being. How Congressional Democrats, Congressional Republicans, and President Trump each approach the current battle will have effects on the fight itself and on their own political standing.

Congressional Democrats

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s decision to launch a formal impeachment inquiry was not inevitable. For nearly a year, she resisted calls from Democratic thought leaders, activists, voters, and even members of her own caucus to move forward with impeachment. Ultimately, it was more the president and less members of her own party who moved Speaker Pelosi to take historic action. In the process, Ms. Pelosi reached a point at which she believed the risks of inaction far outweighed the risks of impeachment.

If Ms. Pelosi had chosen not to act, more progressive members of the Democratic caucus would have continued their vocal criticism of her leadership, publicly and privately. In addition, failure to impeach would risk an increased number of primary challenges over the issue that would have devoured members’ campaign resources in an important election cycle. And finally, inaction would set a dangerous precedent about Congress’s ability and duty to hold a president accountable.

All along, the speaker’s concerns about impeachment came from her position as the highest-ranking member of the Democratic Party. She likely feared that impeachment would invigorate the president’s base and alienate moderate and independent voters—an outcome that would weaken Democrats running for the House and Senate as well as the party’s standard bearer in 2020.

With the revelation of the president’s dealings with Ukraine, Ms. Pelosi believes she has found a situation that could be politically empowering for Democrats without becoming a liability among voters in the middle. Her course of action will likely stave off some primary fights, while demonstrating an inter-branch responsibility to pursue accountability and uphold the rule of law.

Congressional Republicans

Republicans in the House and Senate face a challenging political calculus, too. They are caught between a president whose words and actions make a defense of him more difficult and a president (and subset of voters) who expect loyalty to Mr. Trump. This creates a serious set of political concerns. If Republican voters stay loyal to President Trump (and as my colleague Bill Galston points out, thus far they have), Republican legislators will depend on those same voters to be successful at the polls. Backlash against a Republican who defies the president could spell an end to one’s career.

Beyond voters, many Republicans in Congress fear the president himself. A line of attack against a Republican during a campaign rally or a tirade on Twitter could make a fellow Republican look weak or vulnerable, increase the likelihood of a primary challenge, and set them on a course toward political defeat. That reality has played out in the most predictable ways. Republicans’ responses to the president’s actions have included the regurgitation of White House-supported and conspiracy theory-based talking points, outright mischaracterizations of the facts of the situation, silence, and meek criticism. While Senator Mitt Romney’s jabs at the president have been the most forward, they fall short of an outright condemnation.

Yet, the GOP’s fear of reaction from the president’s base is self-fulfilling. Without clear and vocal opposition from within the Republican Party, why would voters think differently about the president’s behavior? If the only Republican messengers on this scandal are those repeating the president’s same arguments, Republican voters can feel assured that continued support for Mr. Trump is righteous. And with Republicans unwilling to discuss Mr. Trump’s departure from the GOP’s core principles, Republican voters must rely on Democrats’ messaging to induce GOP soul-searching—an unlikely outcome.

The Republicans are left with a catch-22 on impeachment: the type of criticism of the president that could change voters’ minds on impeachment is absent because voters have not yet changed their minds on impeachment.

President Trump

President Trump is currently fighting for his political life. Although his removal from office is highly unlikely, it isn’t impossible. Especially if the final vote in the Senate is close, the process itself could be damaging. In response to the inquiry, he has crafted a strategy that departs dramatically from those employed by President Bill Clinton during his 1998-1999 impeachment and by other presidents during periods of intense scandal. It’s one that employs two tactics that presidents usually avoid: going it alone and shooting from the hip. He is impulsive in his dealings with the press. His words deepen his political jeopardy while leaving his supporters in Congress flat-footed as the White House message changes without notice. It left my colleague Elaine Kamarck to rightly ask, “Is Trump winging it or does he have a clever political strategy?”

That is not to say President Trump’s strategy is a failed one. He has fundraised effectively off both Democrats’ decision to proceed with impeachment and his own rhetoric around the inquiry. In addition, thus far, the president has effectively held the support of his base and lost very little support among fellow Republicans in Congress. (Although it should be noted that not every one of the president’s frequent vocal supporters have been vocal; some have remained noticeably muted during this time.)

However, the president’s approach has become a nuisance to the very Republicans trying to support him. The most consistent part of the president’s strategy appears to channel a Catholic who enters the confessional to brag his sins to a priest and then is shocked when he’s asked to say 10 Hail Marys. In some ways, the president has dared Democrats to investigate him while refusing to consider the impact of his words on the GOP’s standing. And Mr. Trump is uniquely empowered to employ this strategy; he is a president who has only a fleeting relationship with the Republican Party ideology and a notable disregard for the institutions of government.

Yet simply because the president’s strategy is keeping Republicans in line now does not mean it will ultimately be successful. If the increases in public support for impeachment continue, and especially if the number of Republicans supporting impeachment increases, that could put additional pressure on Republicans in Congress to reconsider their position. If the president’s support begins to slip in the public and in the Congress, he will need a new strategy, but the question is whether he has the capacity to appreciate that situation. It is not at all clear that the president knows the difference between the crowds of adoring fans at political rallies and how the rest of America feels about impeachment.

At the moment, it is unclear who among the players involved in the current impeachment battle will win and who will lose. The politics of impeachment is not set on a path toward an obvious political outcome. Instead, the strategies that Congressional Democrats, Congressional Republicans, and President Trump employ can and will have significant impact on public opinion. And ultimately, public opinion and its movement or stability will both determine the president’s future and the future success of the political parties.

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