Congressional Democrats have an impeachment problem. In today’s partisan landscape, there’s virtually nothing the Robert Mueller investigation could dig up that would make his base abandon him and support impeachment. As one of the President’s most famous maxims goes, he could probably stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody and he wouldn’t lose any voters.
On the other side, there’s nothing Robert Mueller could find that the Democratic base wouldn’t see as an impeachable offense. For example, they already believe what we’ve discovered through leaks is enough to justify impeachment. Provided the Democrats take back one of the houses of Congress, the liberal base will be advocating an impeachment vote from day one.
This is shaky ground for congressional Democrats. Despite the demands of liberal activists, it remains true that Democrats can only win a majority in Congress if they play the geographical game. Joe Manchin doesn’t vote for Trump nominees because he thinks they’re great and qualified people, he votes for them because his district is one of the most conservative places in the country. And Joe Manchin toeing the Trump line works.
Thus, voters in red and purple districts will be watching when the impeachment proceedings begin. Democrats will likely try to avoid the issue, but they’re almost certainly going to have to take a vote at some point to placate the base. It may be a controlled vote that they know will fail, but nonetheless each member is going to have to navigate the divide.
It is not at all self-evident how each member should vote. The country is a patchwork of states, districts, and cities who have conflicting feelings about the most polarizing President in American history. On one hand, he remains popular in many deep red areas of the country, and their devotion to him is committed and bottomless. On the other, if Dems win back the majority it will be because of an anti-Trump wave. Thus, do red state Dems try to energize their blue base to show up in droves, or try to gain support from conservatives who are iffy on Trump? Or, in another less oft discussed angle, their goal may be to pacify Trump supporters so they don’t show up to the polls. If that’s the calculation, and it surely will be from some members, it’s best not to poke the bear with an impeachment vote.
All this is based on a presupposition that Mueller’s findings are more or less consistent with what we already know. That is to say Trump’s team behaved in unsavory ways with Russian nationals but the President wasn’t expressly complicit in collusion. What if this isn’t the case? What if Mueller drops bombshell evidence that shows Trump received a call directly from Vladimir Putin laying out their electoral strategy from A to Z.
Most liberals would say the decision is painfully obvious, you impeach the guy. He committed a crime by colluding with the Russians, next question. It’s important to consider the consequences of such an act however. Let’s presume Mueller comes out with his damning findings before the midterms which kills Trump’s approval rating and Democrats sweep the midterms, winning back both houses of Congress such that they control the legislative agenda. Is impeaching Trump wise?
There are two ways to look at this. One is the political outcome. In that outcome Pence becomes President, provided he wasn’t also complicit in the crime for the sake of argument. Is President Pence better or worse for Democrats? Probably better because he would take a more conventional approach with foreign policy and, because the Democrats control both houses, they wouldn’t have to worry about a devastating domestic policy agenda. That said, one probably has to assume Pence would be a more formidable force in the 2020 election. Even though Trump’s partisans would stick with him, he would presumably lose most of the Republicans who aren’t Trump loyalists, which is still a majority of the Trump base, if Mueller proves he conducted illegal and blatantly nefarious activity. Further, if Trump was proven to be a criminal by Robert Mueller, he’d likely lose a lot of financial support in the 2020 election. Koch brother darling Mike Pence would have no such issues.
The other way to look at impeachment is the stability of the social fabric, and this is the big sticking point Democrats must consider. Trump’s loyal followers aren’t going to abandon him even if its proved beyond a doubt him and Putin talk on the phone every night. If he’s impeached, these people are going to see it as the partisan Deep State overturning the results of an election no matter the context.
This isn’t to advocate against impeachment. The 10-15 percent of the electorate that make up the loyal Trump base shouldn’t control how our political system operates. It is worth Democratic consideration, however. We have never faced politics that are this polarized paired with social media and its ability to induce mob like behavior.
The social consequences of impeachment are a Pandora’s Box. Democrats shouldn’t open it lightly.