Saturday, December 14, 2019

This Week in Impeachment: Liberals Got an Impeachment, Moderates Got It Their Way

As Republicans have recently become very fond of pointing out, some liberals have been contemplating the impeachment of Donald Trump since the day he was elected president. This wish is now about to be granted. The contents of Robert Mueller's report didn't convince enough Democratic members of Congress that Trump should face impeachment proceedings, but the uncovering of the Ukraine scandal months later proved more persuasive. Trump is now poised to be the third president in history, and second in the modern era, to be impeached by the House of Representatives once final votes are taken on the floor of the House next week.

The key players on impeachment have always been a group of moderate Democrats who represent the pivotal voting bloc in the House, many of them newly elected in 2018 from districts carried or narrowly lost by Trump two years before. When these members opposed impeaching Trump, House speaker Nancy Pelosi gave them public cover, repeatedly arguing that an impeachment that lacked bipartisan support would be a mistake and even quipping that Trump was "just not worth" impeaching. But when a band of leading moderate freshmen responded to Trump's September admission that he discussed Joe Biden with the president of Ukraine by endorsing an impeachment inquiry, Pelosi reversed her position within a matter of hours, immediately setting a process in motion that led to the upcoming vote.

The anti-Trump left would get its impeachment after all, as it turned out, but the specific arrangements would continue to reflect moderate preferences and demands. The House Intelligence Committee would take the lead in fact-finding, rather than the more colorfully combative Judiciary Committee. The articles of impeachment would focus on Ukraine, not other arguably impeachable offenses committed in other subject areas. And the House's business would be wrapped up by the holiday recess, avoiding the risk of popular fatigue that might arise from a lengthier process.

Now that an impeachment vote is imminent, some liberal commentators are expressing dissatisfaction, calling for a slower timetable and a wider scope of investigation. These arguments are tinged with an unmistakable sense of disappointment that the proceedings so far have neither shaken congressional Republicans' defense of Trump nor reduced the president's support in the wider electorate. But a change in course at this stage would almost certainly provoke defection from moderate Democrats worried about looking too partisan. And it's hard to imagine that impeachment would become more popular, or Trump would become less popular, once increasing numbers of congressional Democrats started to peel away.

Pelosi has managed her diverse party caucus with customary skill; while Democratic leaders expect a small number of members to vote no, a number of key moderates from competitive districts are beginning to signal their support, indicating that her approach has resulted in a broadly unified party. But as the process in the House winds down in advance of an anti-climactic acquittal in the Senate, it has somewhat ironically illustrated the validity of a point that Pelosi was fond of making back when she was arguing the other side of the impeachment debate: a merely partisan vote to impeach, whatever its substantive merits, cannot be expected to inflict much political damage on its target. Impeachment carries such historical weight and constitutional resonance that it initially seems like a uniquely potent weapon that will feel exhilarating to wield against a detested opponent. In today's political climate, however, it can easily turn into just one more battle in an ongoing war that is already conducted at a perpetual level of near-maximum intensity.

Some liberals are likely to express frustration that impeachment is wrapping up without causing the president more political pain. But moderates are worried that they would only be risking their own re-election by prolonging the process, and Pelosi has made it clear all along that she's looking out for the perceived interests of the most electorally vulnerable sector of her caucus. And if three months of public disclosures and hearings didn't make a dent in Trump's popularity, it's hardly surprising that these members are now ready to move on.