Performative Politics: The Impeachment Edition

A while ago, I noted this about Democratic Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (boldface mine):

Democrats would have had repeated opportunities to contrast the two parties, were Republicans to complain. Senate Democrats could have busted out rhetoric like “we’re protecting your religious freedom, your health, your income.” Yes, this is ‘performative politics’, but performative politics are an essential part of politics. They make clear what it is you stand for (or at least what you would like people to believe you stand for…). Yet Democrats seem to think this is beneath them.

Well, we should consider what this means for impeachment too (boldface mine):

It is a common belief in American politics that Republicans of the late 1990s proved voters are implacably hostile to impeaching presidents, and suffered serious political consequences for defying public will. A more faithful interpretation is that Republicans revealed the public opposes overzealous crusades to impeach presidents on dubious grounds, but also that ignoring the public paved the way for Republicans to retake the presidency in 2000, campaigning against the misconduct their anti-Clinton zealotry turned up.

Impeaching a president who is very unlikely to be removed bears at least a family resemblance to passing a bill out of the House that the Senate is likely to shelve or vote down, yet nobody expects Democrats to shelve all of their legislative priorities next year. They might shelve some legislation, because some bills, while important, are unpopular and easy to demagogue, but they would break faith with the public to simply surrender across the board.

Public sentiment still counts for a lot. House Democrats will do a lot of “pointless” things, if they’re things the public wants them to. If Mueller and Democratic investigators unearth yet more evidence of damning crimes, impeachment could easily become one of those things. Democrats should thus let the severity of the crimes, and the public’s reaction to those crimes, determine their course, rather than hand that power to recalcitrant Republicans, nearly all of whom spent the last two years making themselves complicit in the president’s corruption.

Trump may command enough votes in the Senate to lock down the presidency for the duration of his term, but it doesn’t necessarily follow that a majority of the public won’t eventually want Democrats to proceed as if Republicans were no obstacle. The point of impeaching Trump wouldn’t then be to remove him, but to force Republicans to stake out their positions, just as they’ll have to stake out their positions on voting rights, the minimum wage, pre-existing conditions, and many other issues. Impeaching Trump would either allow a trial play out publicly, or cow Republicans into changing Senate precedent, in defiance of strong norms, to make an impeachment trial discretionary rather than mandatory. Either way, they would have to stand up and be counted. Republicans could close ranks around Trump to avoid fracturing their party and its base, but in doing so make themselves toxic to their general electorates. Dozens of soon-to-be unemployed Republicans just learned how this process might work the hard way.

Democrats have to lay the groundwork for impeachment–the emoluments alone would be grounds for removal–but having done so, if a majority of Americans think there are grounds for impeachment, they would be fools to protect Trump. And that is exactly what they would be doing.

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