The Democrats are riding a wave of good political fortune. In 2018 they regained control of the House and avoided devastating loses in the Senate that once seemed likely. They are the opposition party to the only President NEVER to have positive approval ratings, and who remains unpopular despite the fact the economy isn’t doing bad and the US isn’t involved in divisive wars or crises. All the signs point to the Democrats winning big in 2020 for the Presidency, House and Senate.
So why on earth would they want to mess that up by impeaching President Trump, a move likely to cause a backlash and, unless new incendiary evidence emerges, would not remove Trump from office. The GOP controlled Senate is almost certain not to find the President guilty, and would use the trial to attack Democrats. Simply, impeachment creates so much uncertainty that the clear and present advantages the Democrats now hold could be lost. Impeachment would increase the slim chance of President Trump being re-elected.
Donald Trump, in my opinion, is unfit to be President, lacking both the character and intelligence to handle the job. He is, indeed, dangerous, bringing unprecedented levels of dishonesty and incompetence to the White House. It would benefit the country greatly to have him out of office. That logic is what leads supporters of impeachment to push hard for it: we need to rise up and reject a dangerous, incompetent, perhaps mentally disturbed President.
But politics is the art of the possible. Being right doesn’t mean one will be successful. Impeachment is not the removal of the President from office. It is more like an indictment, a claim that there is enough evidence to put the President on trial for high crimes and misdemeanors (which Congress can define however it sees fit). If impeached, the President goes on trial in the Senate, which can either convict him with a 2/3 vote (67 Senators) or acquit him with anything less than 2/3 voting to convict.
When President Clinton was in the midst of the Lewinsky scandal, his approval ratings dipped below 45%. Sensing blood, the anti-Clinton GOP went into overdrive, impeaching the President and sending him to trial in the Senate. There he was easily acquitted, with five Republicans joining the Democrats to vote “not guilty.” When all was said and done, Clinton benefited from a wave of sympathy as the Republicans went too far – he left office with a 60% approval rating, about the same as Ronald Reagan had at the end of his tenure.
I do not expect Trump would reap that much benefit, but moderate Republicans currently willing to reject Trump’s re-election bid could be pushed back into the pro-Trump camp by the emotion and accusations an impeachment battle would cause. Independents might decide the Democrats are reckless and too ideologically driven. If the election is at all close, the dynamics of an impeachment fight could well make Trump’s re-election if not likely, at least more probable.
Right now the Democrats have the moral high ground. They can investigate. They can call witnesses like Michael Cohen whose testimony embarrasses the President and paints a picture of a corrupt, incompetent narcissist. Over the next two years they may get the President’s income tax records released, and make sure that Trump’s approval ratings stay low.
Moreover, they control the purse strings. As the bizarre effort to claim a “national emergency” to bypass Congress shows, the President can’t do anything significant without support from the House. They can completely halt his agenda and stymie his efforts. Yeah, the Republicans hold the Senate and the President still has enormous clout in terms of government regulations, judicial appointments, and other executive actions. But forcing President Trump to use those powers has benefits for the Democrats – they can use his actions to fund raise, inspire their base, and accuse Trump of defying democracy.
So the choice now is this: a) stay the course, continue investigations and efforts to undermine the President’s authority, but don’t impeach. This makes it likely that in less than two years President Trump will be out of office; or b) go full throttle on impeachment and hope that undermines the President more and makes his re-election even less likely. That path risks creating the opposite result, perhaps keeping Trump in office until 2024.
To me the answer is clear – Democrats should pursue the goal of defeating President Trump in 2020. If I thought impeachment would bring about his removal of office or weaken his chances of re-election, I’d support it. I think by many measures he has proven himself unfit for the office. But again, politics is the art of the possible, and at this point impeachment followed by removal from office does not seem at all likely, and the effort could backfire.