The Democratic caucus in the House of Representatives is in a deliberative crisis over the political wisdom of beginning impeachment proceedings against President Donald Trump. Progressives within the caucus, heeding Senator Elizabeth Warren’s call for such action as a Constitutional duty, are daily gaining support against the House majority leadership who fear the electoral backlash in 2020 against any impeachment that will surely die in the Mitch McConnell-controlled Senate.
Given the near-total stonewalling that the Trump administration is employing against any attempt of the House to exercise its oversight of the executive branch, the Democratic leadership may be forced to institute impeachment hearings as the only way to access the witnesses and documents necessary for them to carry out their obligations. Whether that proves to be the case or not, I would argue that impeachment is not only the Constitutionally proper thing to do, but the politically prudent one as well.
The current opposition of the majority of the public to impeachment is often cited as a powerful reason not to go that route. But history instructs that public opinion is subject to change, even in the Age of Trump. Impeachment hearings will provide a learning experience for the American people, as they did during Watergate, when the hearings brought about a sea change in opinion regarding the impeachment of Richard Nixon. Only an estimated three per cent of the electorate has read the redacted version of the Mueller Report.
Televised hearings in 2019 will not attract the audience that the Watergate Senate and House hearings did in 1973-74. Mass communication in our day is much more segmented under the impact of social media than it was in the Seventies when three networks controlled the access to televised news. Even so, television will provide for scores of millions a living reenactment of the Mueller Report as well as an exposition of the areas such as Trump’s finances that the Mueller investigation did not touch upon. Trump supporters may be as effectively insulated from the hearings as Fox News and Clear Channel Radio choose to make them, but they are hardly more than a third of the electorate.
For the vast majority of Americans whose minds have not been shuttered by wing-nut media, impeachment hearings will be an on-going revelation that will bring a critical mass of the American people to the conclusion that over nine hundred former prosecutors of both parties have reached: that President Trump has been guilty of crimes that warrant their appropriate punishment. Presuming the House subsequently votes to impeach, the Senate trial will serve to expose in all its shame the pathological partisanship of the Republican Party that Trump has brought into extremis.
Let the Republican Senators show the nation and the world just how craven they have become in putting Trump and party above the Constitution and the common good. Let them defend the president, as William Barr has disgracefully done, as being beyond the reach of the law. Let them reveal their cynical sycophancy to the most autocratic behavior of the president they once treated as a pariah. That may play well with Trump’s base. It will not go down well with anyone who retains any semblance of political integrity and sanity. It will certainly not bode well for the Republican Party and their candidates in 2020, from the top of the ticket to the bottom.
The key to success for the Democratic Party in 2020 is not to win over Trump supporters. That is largely a fool’s errand. The key, rather, lies in securing the vote of those who were prevented from voting in 2016 or, for whatever reason, failed to vote. Plus bringing on board the large majority of those who have become eligible to vote since the last presidential election. Not to mention the national majority who saw their support for Hilary Clinton nullified by the anachronism that is the Electoral College. The impeachment process will constitute a powerful campaign message that, far from damaging the Democrats, will ensure that, by doing the right thing, they have taken the politically smart path as well. Bring it on.
Robert Emmett Curran of Richmond is professor of history emeritus at Georgetown University.