One of the few certainties about war is its unpredictability: You can never be sure what you’ll wind up with, and that’s if you win. Impeachment, especially of a president, is the political equivalent.
A few thoughts, then, as the U.S. House of Representatives takes its initial steps in what looks like a probable impeachment of President Donald Trump.
Uncertainty is a central consideration. It might not happen in the House; at this writing (Tuesday afternoon) there’s not a clear majority in favor. (That could change.) We don’t know what an inquiry might turn up; it might make the case against the president stronger, or it might not. The Senate widely is assumed to be a lock for acquittal, since much of the Republican caucus would have to go along with conviction for that to happen; but even that is not necessarily a certainty. Republican consultant Mike Murphy made a compelling case today for the flipping of a number of Republican votes: “My Democratic friends assume the worst, seeing most elected Republicans as little more than a corrupt cartel of Trump bitter-enders. I think they underestimate the character of many of the men and women I know well who serve the Republican Party.”
Many analysts have pointed out that polling consistently for more than a year has shown more Americans opposing than supporting impeachment (something close to 55% to 37% has been a norm). Will that remain stable? It might not if congressional Democrats unite in favor of impeachment, since up to now only about 60% of Democrats on average have favored impeachment (and somewhat under half of independents). Many may have reflected the division on the subject they’ve seen in the Democratic congressional caucuses, and the numbers could rise considerably if Democrats (and Democratic-leaning independents) coalesce around it.
The other consideration is the new Ukraine scandal: The president apparently using the threat of withholding congressionally-approved United States funds from Ukraine to pressure a Ukraine investigation of his leading political rival. This is a clear-cut situation, little of importance about it is disputed, and it implicates both American national security and the willingness of the president to use the power of the presidency – and that of foreign governments – to interfere with the 2020 elections. The case is easy enough to understand; you can put it on a bumper sticker.
The one poll I’ve seen on impeachment that factors in Ukraine asked, “If President Donald Trump suspended military aid to Ukraine in order to incentivize the country’s officials to investigate his political rival, Joe Biden, and his son, would you support or oppose impeachment?” The result: 55% favor impeachment (44% “strongly”), and just 26% were opposed. The numbers on impeachment had more than flipped.
Of course, once these trains start, they take on a life of their own. The House Democrats, and their Senate counterparts, could make a hash of things, which wouldn’t be the first time. How might they not?
Stats specialist Nate Silver had a few thoughts about this, and three merit repetition.
First, “Be narrow and specific, perhaps with a near-exclusive focus on Ukraine.” The list of possible impeachable offenses is quite long, stretching out past the horizon. Democrats may see some temptation to throw in the kitchen sink; if they do, they’d just be lowering fog into the proceedings, something Trump surely would welcome. Forget about Russia; stick to Ukraine.
Second, point out why this action has merit even only a year ahead of an election when voters can make their own decision on Trump: Because that election is only a year away. If the president did what he’s being accused of – and in large part has admitted – then he has displayed a willingness to use the vast powers of the presidency to go so far as to steal the next national election. That would put the future of the United States as a nation governed by its people at direct risk. Many Americans could get the point that this is an extreme enough situation to merit an extreme action, which impeachment is.
The other key point Silver makes: Do it quickly. The core facts are out there, and many of the rest (those available in any event in near future) should be available soon. (Take note of the prospect of congressional testimony this week of the still-unknown whistleblower who raised the whole situation.)
Even done with optimum skill, this won’t be easy for anyone to navigate. And there haven’t been a lot of impeachments through American history to draw from. But some paths toward impeachment clearly are smoother than others.