When the dust settled from the impeachment of President Bill Clinton in 1999, his approval rating sat at an astounding 73 percent. That’s a note of caution to Democrats who believe that, having taken the House of Representatives, they should impeach Donald Trump.
The situation and times are not completely analogous, of course. Trump would probably be lucky to hit 73 percent approval in his own White House. But there are enough comparisons for this historical note to give Democrats serious pause.
The current calls for impeachment stem from U.S. prosecutors’ allegation that Trump directed his former attorney, Michael Cohen, to pay hush money to mistresses in what they say was a violation of campaign finance law. Assuming for a moment (although legal scholars disagree on this) that Trump did commit a campaign finance violation, or even a crime. Democrats, including likely incoming House Judiciary Committee Chair Jerry Nadler, say it would be sufficient grounds for impeachment.
But in the same breath, on a Sunday news show Nadler also said even if there is an impeachable offense, it doesn’t mean impeachment is a good idea. This brings us back to the Clinton comparison. Like Trump, Clinton’s troubles began with having a difficult time keeping his pants on. Also like Trump, lying about and trying to obfuscate an illicit tryst was eventually the high crime or misdemeanor that Republicans in the House in 1998 latched onto.
It is now, and was then, abundantly clear that Clinton lied about his affair with Monica Lewinski. Notwithstanding his “What does ‘is’ mean” argument, he almost certainly committed perjury. So what happened? How did his impeachment and eventual Senate acquittal balloon his approval to one of the highest levels ever measured?
The simplest answer is that while the American people did not believe Clinton, they also did not believe he had acted badly enough for Congress to overturn the results of a free and fair presidential election.
Impeachment Is Overreach
That potential for voters to see impeachment of Trump as an overreach must weigh very heavily on the minds of congressional Democrats even while many in their base demand the action. Assuming this alleged campaign finance violation is the basis of the impeachment, Democrats would be saying to voters, “He had affairs and paid hush money without reporting it because he was worried it would hurt his election chances.”
Let’s think about this for a minute. The thrice-married Trump, who has been known to boast about adultery like a suburban dad who won the best lawn in the neighborhood award, apparently had sex with a porn star and a Playboy playmate. That seems about par for his course. But wait! He lied about it! Well, yeah, also pretty much behavior we knew about and expected. But there’s more! He might have violated campaign finance law! Okay, but so do a lot of campaigns. Usually they pay a fine and we all move along.
House Democrats, who know their chances of a Senate conviction on such charges fall somewhere between zero and zero, would presumably bring up articles of impeachment to hurt the president politically. But what if, as happened with Clinton, that which does not kill Trump makes him stronger?
The 2020 Trump Narrative
If Democrats spend some big chunk of time trying to impeach Trump between now and the 2020 election, they will be giving his campaign exactly the narrative it wants to run on. Counterpunching Trump would like nothing more than to tell crowd after crowd at rally after rally that the angry Democrats on the elitist coasts and their friends in the deep state are attempting a coup. That even though the good, hardworking people in forgotten America elected him, they are trying to take it away. And he won’t let it happen. He will fight back.
This fight plays to Trump’s brand arguably even better than it did to Clinton’s, who managed to turn his infidelity into a vast, right-wing conspiracy. The key for Clinton was that those who hated him hated him and those who loved him loved him, but those in the middle rolled their eyes and said, “Really? For this you want to overturn an election?” Now, far fewer people have no strong feelings about Trump than did people with no strong feelings about Clinton, but they do exist, and they matter immensely.
Any attempt by Democrats to reverse the results of a presidential election on such a flimsy basis might very well push opinion into the arms of Trump just as it did for Clinton 20 years ago. By all means, conduct investigations, file subpoenas, shake your heads with dour faces and ask How can this man be president? Don’t we need and deserve better? But they should not, if they know what’s good for them, plunge the nation into its third impeachment battle.
Mission and Ctrategy
A core principle the U.S. Army teaches commanders is that strategy must be a slave to the mission. When comparing specific strategies the question is not which will most likely be successful, but which will best serve the overall mission. Clearly, the Democrats have one mission right now: to ensure that in January of 2021, someone other than Trump is inaugurated president.
In the short term, a strategy of impeachment looks attractive. It will tie the White House up in knots, it will create a few superstar House Democrats who would use their moment in the committee sun the way senators Kamala Harris and Cory Booker did during the Kavanaugh hearings. It would set the White House on its back foot and likely turn the next two years into a lame-duck presidency. But then what?
Trump’s eventual and almost certain acquittal in the Senate would be just as much a victory for him as it was for Bill Clinton. The Democrats, including presidential hopefuls, who supported it would be roundly embarrassed by having wasted the nation’s time, money, and attention tilting at an impossible windmill.
This is not a close call. If at some point Robert Mueller, CNN, or the Washington Post discover some crime that even Senate Republicans admit is disqualifying for Trump’s presidency, then by all means, impeach him. Nothing we have seen so far suggests that such a contingency is particularly likely. For the sake of the country’s sanity, and their own political chances, the Democrats should holster their impeachment pistol and worry about explaining to Americans why one of them, not Trump, should be president of the United States.