The impeachment distraction
Impeachment is on President Trump's mind. "We have to keep the House," he told a crowd in Michigan over the weekend, "because if you listen to Maxine Waters [lusty boos from the crowd], she goes around saying, 'We will impeach him, we will impeach him.' Then people said, 'But he hasn't done anything wrong.' 'Oh, that doesn't matter. We will impeach the president.'"
That particular conversation was, of course, a Trump fantasy. But it's true that there are some Democrats who would like to impeach the president, and a whole lot of other Democrats wringing their hands about it. "I say to everybody, stop it," said former Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid this week, emerging from retirement to issue his party a warning. "The less we talk about impeachment, the better off we are." Likewise, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi calls impeachment "a gift to the Republicans." No doubt their feelings are shaped by the 1998 impeachment of Bill Clinton, which ended badly for Republicans when Clinton stayed in office and the GOP wound up looking like a bunch of puritanical scolds who put the country through a yearlong ordeal for nothing, just because of their loathing for the president.
Democrats certainly wouldn't want a repeat of that. But everyone should ease off on the warnings of electoral doom, because the Democrats don't have an impeachment problem.
That's not to say there aren't some Democrats who would be happy to impeach Trump right now. In fact, they got an impeachment resolution to the floor in January; it got 66 votes, about a third of their members. Democratic megadonor Tom Steyer has put money behind an impeachment push.
But how many Americans actually treat that as anything other than a cri de coeur, more an expression of righteous outrage than a plan for action? After all, in a recent Quinnipiac poll, only 38 percent of respondents said they'd want Democrats to impeach Trump if they won the House this fall. Fifty-five percent opposed impeachment.
You can see the same trend if you look around at all the Democrats running for office. Are they pledging that if they get power, impeachment will be the first item on the agenda? No, they aren't. You may find one here or there who wants to impeach the president, but most of them don't raise the issue themselves, and if they get asked they're likely to reply with some version of "We'll see."
Which is the right answer, both substantively and politically. In addition to Democrats winning the House, there are two things that would have to happen before they could even consider impeachment. The first is that Special Counsel Robert Mueller will have to complete his investigation, which we've only learned about in bits and pieces. He'd need to be able to show what the extent of the Trump campaign's collusion with Russia was, and what other crimes may have been committed by Trump or his associates. Then Democrats, using their newfound power, would have to conduct the investigations that Republicans have been reluctant to up until now, into not only Russia but any number of administration misdeeds.
Once that's all done, then we'll see. It may be that Trump will be completely exonerated. It may be that his crimes will be so blindingly obvious that no one can deny them. Or — and this is the most likely outcome — the full picture will be one that convinces Democrats he really ought to be impeached, but because it doesn't convince Republicans of the same thing, there won't be much point in going through with it.
That's something to keep in mind, too: There are few Democrats who would think it's a good idea to impeach the president if they know he'd be acquitted in the Senate. Given that you need 67 votes to convict, that's just not going to happen knowing what we know now, since Democrats will at absolute most have 51 or 52 senators this time next year. Most Republicans wouldn't vote to toss Trump from office if we learned that he killed JFK and Tupac, so there would have to be some awfully remarkable revelations to make it even a remote possibility.
Like everything else in our time, this question is determined by partisanship, and partisanship is probably going to keep Trump in office no matter what we find out he did (or what he continues to do).
So why are so many politicos so interested in warning Democrats away from even talking about impeachment? Part of the interest in this as an internal Democratic struggle stems from the perennial tendency among journalists to cry "Dems in disarray!" Another part is the insistence that however well Democrats seem to be doing at a given moment, they're always Doing It Wrong, about to screw everything up because they fail to understand what beats in the hearts of "real" Americans, the kind who can be found tucking into a plate of sausage and eggs under their MAGA hats down at Pearl's Diner on Main Street in Midwestburg, USA while Fox News blares in the background.
But the truth is that the Democratic Party isn't really being torn apart by the question of impeachment. Most Democrats certainly think Trump deserves it, but there's a long road from there to actually making it happen. That's not to say it's impossible. But if Democrats are going to get rid of Trump, they're probably going to have to do it at the ballot box in 2020.