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Impeachment as Political Strategy

Beyond the imperatives associated with rule of law imperatives, the process would be valuable to expose and weaken Trump and the Republicans for 2020

Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) speaks during the North American Building Trades Unions Conference at the Washington Hilton April 10, 2019 in Washington, DC. Warren has made clear she approves of initiating the impeachment process against President Trump and it has not slowed her down on the campaign trail as she meets with voters and talks about very serious policy proposals. (Photo: Zach Gibson/Getty Images)

The argument about impeachment continues, as it should.

Earlier this week, I laid out the general case for impeachment. My argument was not ethical or legal, it was political: impeachment is a legitimate constitutional process that ought to be pursued not because it will remove Trump from office — Senate Republicans will surely prevent this — but because it is necessary given the mobilization surrounding the Mueller investigation, and it is a promising opportunity to publicly build the political case against Trump.

In Tuesday’s Washington Post, Katrina vanden Heuvel made an intelligent case that “Congress should censure Trump for actions that violate the laws and offend the basic duties and dignity of his office. And then Democrats would be wise to move on, focus on how Trump is betraying the very voters who put him in office, and bring his misrule to an end by sweeping him out of office in the 2020 election.”

"Impeachment is not an alternative to effective campaigning for 2020. Impeachment is a legitimate and potentially powerful way for Democrats to organize a sustained Prime Time Public Service Announcement for Democracy in all of its ramifications."

Drawing heavily on the cautionary position advanced by Nancy Pelosi, Vanden Heuvel offers a number of reasons in support of this judgment. One is that impeachment “is a wrenching process,” and that especially given the Mueller Report’s refusal to bring criminal charges, it “will bitterly polarize an already polarized country.” The second is that “Republican support would be essential for any impeachment to succeed.”And the third is that a focus on impeachment requires a continued focus on “what is now called Russiagate. For more than two years, too many liberal voices and too many Democratic politicians have been focused almost monomaniacally on the last election and Russia’s involvement. . . This focus often overshadowed the reality of Trump’s misrule: that he has hosted a predator’s ball in Washington, turning government over to entrenched interests who are rigging the rules even more against working people, while Trump hawks racial and nativist fears to distract from the plunder going on.” And so vanden Heuvel argues that these features of Trump’s misrule, and not impeachment, that ought to now be the Democrats’ focus.

This position is very close to that articulated by Bernie Sanders Monday night on CNN:

At the end of the day, what is most important to me is to see that Donald Trump is not re-elected president, and I intend to do everything I can to make sure that doesn’t happen. . . But if — and this is an if — if for the next year, year-and-a-half, going right into the heart of the election, all that the Congress is talking about is impeaching and we’re not talking about health care, we’re not talking about raising the minimum wage to a living wage, we’re not talking about combating climate change, we’re not talking about sexism and racism and homophobia and all of the issues that concern ordinary Americans, what I worry about is that works to Trump’s advantage.

I share the belief that it is foolish and wrong, and has always been foolish and wrong, to focus on Trump’s links with Putin rather than Trump’s ideological affinities with Putin (I first made this argument in a January 2017 piece entitled “Thoughts on Trump and Putin”). The Mueller Report is important precisely because it documents, in painstaking detail, some of the ways that Trump is hostile to core features of democracy: fair elections, the rule of law, public honesty, public service, public reasonableness. The unethical campaign practices, and the obstructions of justice, that are documented by Mueller are not the worst things about Trumpism. But they are bad things about Trumpism that put Trump in the crosshairs of the Constitution, as Mueller’s report makes clear even as it refrains from recommending indictments. And impeachment is an entirely legitimate, Constitutionally-prescribed process for holding corrupt or dangerous Presidents accountable for their malfeasant conduct.

Vanden Heuvel is correct that “Republican support would be essential for any impeachment to succeed” only if by success we mean removal from office via non-electoral means. But in a broader political sense, impeachment can succeed precisely by very publicly exposing Trump’s derelictions and lies and corruptions and by also exposing the Republican party’s abject capitulation to Trump’s “high crimes and misdemeanors” — if the Democratic leadership can orchestrate it with care, and develop and execute a savvy media strategy for exposing Trump’s many genuine harms to constitutional democracy.

That is the reason to pursue impeachment: not to pursue the impossible objective an early removal of Trump from office, but to seize on Trump’s genuine liabilities and infractions, and to take advantage of the process prescribed by the Constitution to raise broader questions about fairness, justice, civic equality, and democracy. To do this would be to take constitutionalism seriously and to commence an entirely legitimate public campaign against a dangerous autocrat, precisely so as to better defeat him at the polls in 2020.

And this is why Sanders and vanden Heuvel are wrong to treat talk of “Trump, Trump, Trump, Mueller, Mueller, Mueller,” and of “impeachment” as a distraction from and an alternative to talking about sexism, racism, xenophobia, health care, wages, etc. For these things are not alternatives. They are all different dimensions of the same reality: the Trump administration, and the Trumpist Republican party, are clear and present dangers to democratic values. Why can’t smart Democrats link them together in a common narrative? If we can do this with a Green New Deal — and we can — then why not also do this for Trump? Why can’t Democrats say this:

Trump is a danger to democracy, and that is why we are impeaching him, and the impeachable offenses he has committed are linked to other and more materially damaging acts, and we will make the connections, and we will bring the case before the American people, and when Trump obstructs, and the Senate Republicans oppose, we will expose them for what they are: corrupt authoritarians who ought to be voted out of office.

The House Judiciary Committee can commence an impeachment inquiry and at the same time Democrats in Congress can also continue to discuss other issues, in other committees and even on the floor. But it’s not like any serious legislation supported by House Democrats has any chance of passing a Republican Senate and being signed into law by Trump anyway. There can be no real legislative agenda before defeating Trump in 2020. And so all Congressional deliberation now is really centered on framing, and posturing, and testing ideas rather than on actual legislation. And such framing and testing is perfectly consistent with an impeachment process.

In the same way, Sanders, and all the rest — including Warren, who has come out bravely for impeachment — can continue to campaign all across the country, raising any and all issues they wish to raise.

Why can’t Democratic candidates do this while also saying that they support an impeachment inquiry in the House?

No one is expecting Sanders to say “Trump and Trump, Trump, Trump, and Mueller, Mueller, Mueller” and nothing else. But it is entirely possible to expect Sanders, and all Democrats who are serious about democracy, to say this: “I think that Trump is damaging out country in a great many ways, and while I support the Fight for $15 and Universal Health Care and the Green New Deal, I also support Trump’s impeachment, and I support all of these things for the same reason: because I believe in equality before the law, and due process, and civic equality, and I believe in free and fair elections based on real public debate and political competition. In other words, I believe in democracy.”

In short, impeachment is not an alternative to effective campaigning for 2020. Impeachment is a legitimate and potentially powerful way for Democrats to organize a sustained Prime Time Public Service Announcement for Democracy in all of its ramifications. Such a campaign for democracy is not a distraction from a concern for the 2020 elections. It is a way, and very likely the best way, for Democrats to build public support and political power so that they can win in 2020.

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Jeffrey C. Isaac

Jeffrey C. Isaac

Jeffrey C. Isaac is James H. Rudy Professor of Political Science at Indiana University, Bloomington. His books include: Democracy in Dark Times (1998); The Poverty of Progressivism: The Future of American Democracy in a Time of Liberal Decline; and Arendt, Camus, and Modern Rebellion.

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