Mon, Oct 07, 2019 - Page 7 News List

The impeachment trap: Democrats retread a failed strategy

By Eric Posner

US Democrats have made a serious mistake by launching impeachment proceedings against US President Donald Trump. They are replaying the Republican-led impeachment of then US-president Bill Clinton in 1998, a futile exercise that damaged Republicans, enhanced Clinton’s power and caused institutional damage as well.

The common factor of the two impeachments is that it was clear from the start that the US Senate would never convict, which requires a two-thirds majority. In 1998, the 45 Senate Democrats were not happy that Clinton perjured himself before a grand jury, obstructed justice and conducted an extramarital affair with a White House intern, Monica Lewinsky.

However, they did not believe that this behavior was grounds for removal from office. The behavior was not sufficiently egregious to overcome their political loyalty to a president who remained popular with voters.

Republicans leading the impeachment knew that few, if any, Senate Democrats would vote to convict (in fact, none did). Republicans hoped to embarrass the Democrats and damage Clinton, believing that they would pick up some seats in the November 1998 election by launching impeachment proceedings before then. They were wrong. Clinton’s popularity rose after the impeachment proceedings ended. Most Americans believed that impeachment was a mistake.

Many people worried that the Clinton impeachment would damage the presidency, but its main impact on presidential power was the opposite. Republicans eventually agreed with Democrats that responsibility for the debacle lay with Kenneth Starr, the independent counsel whose investigations of Clinton’s real-estate dealings years earlier eventually led him to Lewinsky.

The two parties allowed the independent counsel statute to lapse, freeing the presidency from a powerful form of oversight, much to Trump’s benefit a generation later.

Today, Senate Republicans may well be privately concerned about Trump’s behavior, but there is no indication that even one would vote in favor of removal. While Trump is nowhere near as popular as Clinton was, he retains the loyalty of his base, who dominate the Republican primaries, and, unlike Clinton, he enjoys majority support in the Senate.

Indeed, the extraordinary enthusiasm of Trump’s supporters — their indifference to his many other scandals — almost guarantees that any additional information that might materialize during the impeachment hearings will not influence Republican senators.

Some supporters of impeachment argue that the gravity of the accusations against Trump — that he enlisted a foreign country to harass a political opponent — will ensure his conviction. However, we have been through this before. Democrats who abhor sexual harassment and perjury supported Clinton because they saw the alternative as worse.

Republicans will make the same calculation. Perhaps the story would be different if Trump had persuaded the Ukrainians to arrest former US vice president Joe Biden while sightseeing in Kiev.

The president’s behavior, as odious as it is, is a far cry from then US-president Richard Nixon’s involvement in espionage against the Democratic Party — the single historical example of impeachment proceedings leading to the removal (in Nixon’s case, resignation) of the president.

Others argue that even if Trump is not removed, impeachment in the US House of Representatives — which the Democratic majority virtually guarantees — will send a strong signal that the president’s behavior violates American values.

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