What If the Democrats Had Not Pursued Impeachment?

by Neil H. Buchanan

Both The New York Times and The Washington Post, as of this writing, are running front-page articles that claim that the impeachment process will be good for Donald Trump in next year's election.  Both stories, however, are notably weak when trying to back up that point (and do not even really try).

The Times's article merely says that Trump himself "thinks that it will help him on the campaign trail" (and the embedded link takes readers to an earlier Times article that says that Trump thinks impeachment will help him).  More interestingly, the story ends with a prediction, noting that "Mr. Trump’s advisers worry about ... the snapback of his anger once the impeachment process is over. They predict he will be furious, and looking for payback."  The invertebrate Lindsey Graham reportedly told Trump not to do that, apparently because it would be bad for his election, so even the most craven Republicans do not think this is necessarily good for Trump.

The Post's article, meanwhile, merely reports that the Trump reelection campaign is pushing the line that impeachment will be good for him.  But what else are they going to say -- both because they dare not disagree with Trump and, more importantly, because their job is to say things like that?  Trump's campaign manager is quoted as follows: "This lit up our base, lit up the people that are supporters of the president. They’re frustrated, they’re upset, and that motivates voters.  They [presumably he means the Democrats] have ignited a flame underneath them [presumably he means Trump's supporters].  ... That has put money in our bank [campaign donations]. It has added volunteers to our field program.  It’s filled up the rallies easier."

To which one can only respond: I call BS.  That is absolutely a nonsensical argument, as I will explain.  More to the point, even if it were true, there is no way that the Democrats could have done anything differently.  This is therefore, at worst, major papers amplifying Trump's spin.  At best, it is evidence-free Monday-morning quarterbacking.

Speaking of football, my go-to analogy in this situation (which I am surprised that I have not invoked in the last eighteen months) is former Chicago Bears coach Mike Ditka's dismissal of "bulletin board material" to motivate his players.  His argument was that if NFL athletes need the coach to twist some quote from the opponents to get them to play harder, then they should not be playing professional football.  Notwithstanding the trite "Give it 110 percent!" nonsense from many coaches, Ditka's point is that there is a 100 percent maximum, and all NFL players should be there every time they step onto the field.

It is probably true that voters sometimes need to be motivated, but not Trump voters.  It is simply unimaginable that his base is not at 100 percent fury all the time, in large part because Trump and his Pravda-like promoters in the Foxiverse spend all of their time making the Trumpists angry.  They are at all times maximally "lit up," and the only question is which fake outrage will be the anger generator du jour.

Moreover, if there truly are Trump supporters who are not always fully outraged -- that is, people who need to be re-infuriated periodically -- this is not good news for the Trump campaign, because the impeachment will be old news by the time the primaries begin, much less by the time people are voting in November.  Sure, Trump will claim to have been exonerated by the Senate's failure to convict, but had there been no impeachment, he would have just spent a bit more time lying at each rally about how the Mueller report exonerated him, attacking Peter Strzok and Lisa Page, falsely claiming that the Justice Department's IG report this week proved that the FBI was out to get him, and so on.  Oh, and bragging about winning Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin in 2016.

In short, it is actually kind of shocking that the nation's two most important newspapers are uncritically recycling this talking point from the Republicans.  For one thing, it is not news.  For another, there is no reporting to support the claim (other than the reporters turning themselves into glorified stenographers and typing what Republican flacks say).  But given all of the other shortcomings in media coverage of U.S. politics, I guess this is not particularly surprising.

More importantly, if the argument is that Democrats made a mistake by pursuing impeachment, then the only response can be that they had no choice.  Even if it were true that this is a political win for Trump (and at the risk of belaboring the point, neither evidence nor logic suggests that it is), and even with 20-20 hindsight, how in the world would anyone believe that the Democrats' better move was to decide not to pursue this course of action?

To be clear, the ex ante situation even more obviously called for impeachment.  No one knew then that the Republicans in the Senate would actually come around to the absurd position that Trump had done nothing wrong at all, meaning that it was reasonable to imagine that a small number of Republicans in the Senate might actually vote to convict (knowing that theirs were "free votes" that would not actually convict Trump).  It is only through this process that we have learned that Republicans would play along with personal attacks on Hunter Biden, smears of foreign service officers, constant relocations of goal posts (from "It would be impeachable if it happened" all the way to "Of course it happened, so what?"), and on and on.

Now that we know how the Republicans have continued and accelerated their self-debasement throughout the past few months, however, it still makes no sense to say that if the Democrats had known all this, they would and should have taken a pass.

Most obviously, it is not as if there are no upsides to having gone through a process that has exposed the Republicans for what they have become.  Assuming that next year's elections are not completely rigged, the senators up for reelection in not-bright-red states will have to answer difficult questions about their actions and inactions throughout this process.  I almost had pity for Susan Collins's campaign manager even before this, but the senator's disappearing act in this moment of history has made her reelection still more difficult.

But suppose that there is no political upside at all for Democrats as a result of their decision to impeach.  Suppose even that there truly is a political downside (up and down the ballot).  The right question is not whether the Democrats wish that those bad things were not happening but whether there were any better alternatives.  Not: "Hey Democrats, there are bad results of your decision, so you shouldn't have made that decision," but: "Were the alternatives better or worse?"

Consider how bad not impeaching would have been for the Democrats.  Trivially (or maybe not so trivially, but who knows), they have preoccupied Trump for months, preventing him from doing some other crazy things that we can only imagine.  He is reportedly full of self-pity, and he is breaking his own records for rage-tweeting and alienating the few decent undecided voters who might still have been giving him the benefit of the doubt.

Seriously, are his attacks on Greta Thunberg -- a 16-year-old girl with Asperger's syndrome -- doing anything good for him with undecided voters?  How about trying to threaten Maria Yovanovitch while she was testifying?  Frankly, I see only upside to keeping Trump maximally aggrieved and distracted (especially given that House Democrats have proved during this process that they can continue to fulfill their other duties).

Again, however, imagine that this political upside were not there.  What if Democrats had looked at the whistleblower's complaint and Trump's non-verbatim transcript of his phone call to Ukraine's president and said, "You know, the Senate still won't convict, so the hell with it" and/or "The election is only a year away, so we'll let the voters get rid of him."  Then what?

First, unlike Trump's devotees, other voters actually do need to be motivated to go to the polls (as the number of stay-at-homes in 2016 -- many more than enough to turn the election for Hillary Clinton -- demonstrates).  And what they need most of all is a reason to think that the Democrats are worth voting for.  A party that says, "Yeah, this is bad, and we realize that this is textbook impeachment material, but we're too timid to take the risk of trying and failing," is not a party that motivates voters.  This is why I am so underwhelmed by Joe Biden's campaign, by the way, because he might as well be saying, "I promise that nothing will happen -- bad or good -- if you make me president."

Second, and much more important, if the Democrats had decided that election meddling is not impeachable, they would have simply given Trump and Putin a calligraphed invitation to do their worst.  Unlike Trump, Putin is not crazy, or at least he is always calculating risks and rewards.  Yes, he is surely happy that Republicans have become such useful idiots during he impeachment process, but he just as surely would view a there-are-no-consequences-to-anything approach by Democrats as a massive change in his risk/reward ratio.

And as long as we are using 20-20 hindsight, the impeachment process has unearthed much more evidence of Trump's wrongdoing than we ever could have imagined.  It is still incontrovertibly true that "[t]he transcript Trump released is still the only evidence needed to impeach him," but especially if any of this is going to have an impact on next year's elections, having millions of people see Fiona Hill's impressive testimony and Gordon Sondland's useful self-parody can only be a good thing for Democrats.

Finally, to return to my overall fatalistic view of all things political since 2016, there is value in knowing sooner rather than later just how bad things are.  Knowing that Trump responds to this by sending Pompeo and Giuliani abroad to dig up dirt confirms that there is no shame.  Knowing that the July 25 phone call was not a one-off and that there had been months of work by Trump and his henchmen to pressure Ukraine confirms that there is no longer any reason to think that they are not doing their worst every day.

As I have long argued, this is almost certainly going to end very badly, with Trump refusing to accept unwelcome election results next year and Republicans backing him up in what will amount to an internal coup.  But if that is too pessimistic, then Democrats truly did the only thing they could do -- both ethically and strategically -- by pursuing even a doomed impeachment process.  No matter whether Trump is weaker or stronger afterward than he was before, he would have been much stronger -- and frighteningly feeling that he had absolutely no limits -- if he had not been impeached.