The opening of an impeachment inquiry into President Trump’s conduct has sent Americans scrambling to divine meaning from the two previous impeachments in our history. In both cases — Andrew Johnson in 1868 and Bill Clinton in 1998 — a House of the opposite party impeached the president, only to see the Senate acquit largely along party lines.

At present, many observers expect a similar result for Trump: impeachment by the Democratic majority in the House with acquittal by the Republican-controlled Senate. With his party controlling the Senate, and Republican base voters still strongly supporting him, Trump appears to be insulated against removal from office.

This is a reminder that political realities are as important as any other factor, if not more so, in the decision to remove a president charged with “high crimes and misdemeanors.” While many argue that this is a perversion of the founders’ vision, the founders themselves were unsure about the effectiveness of impeachment and removal.

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In fact, the founders’ debates over impeachment offer another solution to handling Trump: Voters, rather than the Congress, can choose to remove him from office next year. And if the success rate of prior impeachment efforts is any guide, the House ought to leave the president’s fate to the voters in 2020.

From the outset, there were no easy answers to the impeachment question. Some thought the whole thing unnecessary. At the Constitutional Convention, the New York lawyer and merchant Gouverneur Morris initially argued that the executive should “not be impeachable” and instead suggested a “biennial election” every two years. Rufus King of New York concurred, arguing that the president would “periodically be tried for his behaviour by his electors,” namely through a regular election cycle.

The majority of the delegates, however, disagreed with King and Morris, believing that elections alone were insufficient to check presidential misdeeds. They especially worried about the very real possibility of bribes from foreign governments, as had been the case throughout English history. Concerned about this possibility, Morris started to believe that the impeachment clause was a necessary evil. But reflecting on the overthrow of the monarchy during the American Revolution, he wisely concluded: “The people are the King.”

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Even after the delegates agreed on having an impeachment procedure, they continued to debate how the process for removal would work. In September, as the convention waned, a draft called for the Senate to serve as the deliberative body.

Undeterred, James Madison made a case for the Supreme Court assuming this role instead. To Madison, the president would become “improperly dependent” upon the Senate, which might hold the possibility of removal over his head to extract concessions. But much had changed in the months between the two debates. None other than Morris came to the defense of the proposed removal method, arguing that “no other tribunal than the Senate could be trusted” and noting that there “could be no danger that the Senate would say untruly on their oaths.” That the president also held the authority to appoint judges to the Supreme Court ultimately swayed the delegates to lodge the removal power in the Senate.

The final compromise found senators acting as jurors and the chief justice of the United States as judge. To remove, the Constitution required the high bar of a two-thirds guilty vote.

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Yet the inclusion of this extra safeguard did not erase concern about the potential abuse of executive power, and those favoring ratification of the Constitution had to explain why impeachment was an adequate check on the executive. In Federalist No. 66, Alexander Hamilton argued that impeachment fit within the system of checks and balances. He espoused the virtues of a “partial intermixture” between the House and the Senate in the impeachment process, which acted as “an essential check in the hands of that body upon the encroachments of the executive.” Americans need not worry, Hamilton assured; the Constitution was a balanced document.

In reality, the system of checks and balances played out in an America starkly different from the one envisioned by the founders. The factional differences so bemoaned by Madison in Federalist No. 10 worsened during the 19th century. By the late 1820s, political parties became an entrenched feature of American politics, warping debates in part due to each side wielding its own media megaphone through print newspapers.

The result was partisan disagreements splashed across front pages, including during the first case of presidential impeachment in 1868. As early as 1866, radical Republican newspapers called on Congress to impeach President Andrew Johnson. When Congress finally did so in 1868, Northern and Southern newspapers offered different interpretations about the realities of the situation, echoing the divisions that riddled the nation before the Civil War. The radical Northern press prevailed, with its views becoming mainstream (perhaps unsurprising given that the Republicans controlled Congress).

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Over the next century, technology dramatically changed the media. But simultaneously, the partisan press of the 19th century gave way to a norm of objectivity. So it was that Americans experienced the debate over the fate of Richard Nixon in 1974 in real time, but with relatively neutral media coverage. This environment helped explain why the impeachment process prompted Nixon’s resignation.

Even so, the markers of partisanship were present, and, to a great extent, Nixon exited office only because of the White House taping system, which vividly exposed his crimes. While it was a far less partisan time than today, Senate Republicans largely remained supportive of Nixon — which made him immune from removal even with 61 Democratic senators — until the release of the “smoking gun” tape changed the political calculus. Two days later, Republican Sens. Barry Goldwater and Hugh Scott met with the president to inform him that the party’s support had evaporated. Nixon announced his resignation the next day.

Rather than being an example of how well the impeachment process worked, Nixon’s situation showed just how hard it was for partisans to abandon an ethically challenged president.

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It only became harder due to changes in the media and intensifying partisanship in the late 20th century. The launch of CNN in 1980 led to a 24/7 news cycle, and the rise of first conservative talk radio in the late 1980s and then Fox News, which launched in 1996, paved the way for new partisan media.

By the time of Clinton’s impeachment, Americans experienced the proceedings through saturation coverage, which precipitated deep divisions and a partisan slugfest.

In the Republican-controlled House, the 1998 vote fell with few exceptions along strict party lines. In the Senate trial, not a single Democrat voted in favor of removal, which effectively doomed the effort.

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Since the Clinton impeachment, partisanship has only intensified further, in part because ideological media has proliferated, placing increasing pressure on politicians to hew to the party line and fueling very different understandings of even the biggest political happenings.

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The prospect of securing 67 votes to remove Trump or any subsequent president from office has become almost unthinkable. And the last time that one party came close to having a two-thirds majority in the Senate was in 1965. Perhaps Madison was not wrong in questioning whether the Senate was the best forum to decide upon removal of a president, though the increasingly partisan nature of the Supreme Court casts doubt on the neutrality of that body as well.

The America the founders envisioned, one without media-fueled partisanship, may have made impeachment a more usable tool to contain abuses of executive power. But it did not develop, and now removing a president via this cumbersome process is virtually impossible, absent the sort of irrefutable smoking gun that felled Nixon. Even that might not be sufficient today given the rise of ideological broadcast media that leaves Americans willing to disbelieve anything.

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In the end, it turns out that Gouverneur Morris’s original idea might have been right after all: The best, and perhaps only, remedy for presidential misconduct is “periodical elections.” Rather than impeaching Trump, the House would be wise to listen to this long-ago founder: The people have an opportunity to render judgment on President Trump’s misdeeds, and removing him from office in 2020 won’t require a two-thirds majority.

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