“From here on out, most Presidents will now get impeached when the opposite party holds the House,” former Trump White House chief of staff Reince Priebus warned after Wednesday’s votes. “This is a new political game that will play out for decades to come.”
Rep. Don Bacon (R-Neb.) predicted on the House floor Wednesday, “In the future, the majority will use impeachment as a tactic to remove a president simply based on partisanship.”
Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.) said, “From this day forward, a hyperpartisan, bare majority can cite this precedent to try to remove a future commander in chief.”
Rep. Chris Stewart (R-Utah) was even more certain. “If you set this bar as being impeachable, every president in our future will be impeached,” he assured.
Every. Single. One.
But will they really? There are plenty of reasons to be very skeptical that this will truly be the new normal.
What’s funny about this debate is that we had the same one in the late 1990s, when the roles were reversed. The Washington Post’s Ruth Marcus wrote at the time about how some Democrats cautioned that impeaching President Bill Clinton for misdeeds in his personal life — not his official actions — would similarly lower the bar. And, given that there has now been another impeachment two decades later, perhaps they would claim they were kind of, sort of right.
But there are also plenty of reasons to believe this step will continue to be approached cautiously. One is that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), according to all outward signs, had to be dragged into blessing these proceedings. The conventional wisdom is that the Clinton impeachment hurt Republicans in the 1998 election, after all, and Pelosi clearly didn’t want a repeat — especially since she knew partisanship would mean Trump would never be removed from office.
And that’s the second reason to be skeptical. The odds that a president would ever be removed from office have lengthened significantly in recent decades because you need 67 senators to vote in favor, and our politics has become so polarized and tribal. We had as many members switch parties over impeachment, in fact, as voted with the other party on Wednesday.
So if this process is never likely to succeed, what is its utility? Pelosi and the Democrats would argue it was simply the right thing to do. But beyond that, could it be used as a political weapon?
If it can, it sure doesn’t seem to be a particularly effective one, at least at this juncture. Republicans lost ground in the 1998 election, and they blamed impeachment. (They performed better in the 2000 election two years later, of course, and very narrowly won back the presidency.) Fast-forward to today, and Trump’s standing is arguably slightly better than it was before impeachment began. His approval rating in the FiveThirtyEight average of polls is 43.4 percent — the highest it has been since March 2017. Similarly, he has improved his standing a bit in polls of the 2020 general election.
Much has to play out here, including a Senate trial. It seems unlikely though, that we’ll get much new information there, and the information we’ve already gotten doesn’t seem to have swayed anyone from where they began the process. Republicans would argue that labeling Trump an impeached president is a significant political event — a scarlet letter that will forever be in his political obituary — but that will be of little solace to Democrats if this winds up hurting them even a little bit in the 2020 election. Several of them in Trump districts just took a very difficult vote, and it would hardly be a surprise if this didn’t at least slightly diminish their majority.
Peter Shane, a professor at Ohio State University’s law school who was quoted in Marcus’s article in the 1990s, suggested that Trump’s impeachment could raise the bar for impeachment.
“Except for the potential revenge factor down the road, part of what is most significant about this impeachment is how many ways Trump is debasing the office or upending the separation of powers that did not lead to articles of impeachment,” Shane said.
He added: “Rather than wondering whether the two impeachment articles have lowered the bar, perhaps we should wonder whether the House’s forbearance in the face of so much abuse will actually serve as precedent for too much indulgence of future executive overreach. Only time will tell.”
And finally there is this point, which FiveThirtyEight’s Nate Silver made: Unlike the very popular at the time Clinton, Trump has consistently been an unpopular president. And, given that Trump did something pretty dicey, however you slice it, his case would seem to be one in which impeachment should have been a popular exercise. Instead, the most recent polls show about an even split, with even some Trump opponents disagreeing with the result.
Even more so than the Clinton impeachment, the Trump impeachment might serve as a cautionary tale when it comes to the efficacy of this supposed new political tool. And, indeed, if impeachment were to become more frequent, it would surely mean less and less to voters as time went on.
It arguably already has.