Sometimes it’s necessary to point out the obvious, so here goes: President Trump isn’t going to be impeached and removed from office unless the Republican Party decides it wants him gone.
You may believe him to have already committed the “high crimes and misdemeanors” that merit such drastic action; you may even be right. But “high crimes and misdemeanors” is ill-defined. In the end, it amounts to “anything Congress thinks merits removal from office.”
With the Senate controlled by Republicans — and the Democratic House majority dependent on right-leaning swing districts — that means nothing can really happen unless the Republican Party decides to go along.
But which party? There is the party of the GOP political professionals, the dreaded “establishment,” happy to daydream about the soothing possibilities of a President Pence. The only thing stopping them from making that dream come true is their fear of the other Republican Party, the GOP’s electoral base.
A substantial part of that base voted for Trump as a rebuke to the very people who hate him so much. Another sizeable faction doesn’t particularly care for Trump but likes to see him appointing conservative judges and being more assertive with China. A third faction is made up of staunch party loyalists who think they should stand by their team. As long as those three factions line up against impeachment — and right now, they overwhelmingly do — Trump will stay firmly seated in the Oval Office.
So the question for impeachophiles is “how many of those voters can be moved?” The die-hard Trump supporters probably can’t be, but the other groups are potentially at least persuadable. That brings us to the question of how to persuade them. And to Justin Amash, the Michigan representative who just broke ranks with his party by calling for Trump’s impeachment.
A sophisticated theory of how the Democrats might succeed in impeaching Trump goes something like this: Aggressively investigate the president, keeping news of his Russian perfidy in the headlines day after day. As his support erodes, welcome Republican defectors who start to signal that, yes, it’s OK for a party loyalist to support impeachment. Recruit more and more Republican mavericks to Team Impeachment until the Republicans who never liked Trump much in the first place decide that he’s destined to lose in 2020 and tarnishing the party in the meantime. When you have a critical mass of defectors in the House, pull the trigger and impeach, trusting the Republican senators to go along out of concern for their party’s reputation and for their own electoral prospects.
In that scenario, a defector such as Amash is essential: A single defection assures impeachment-curious Republicans of company on the other side of the aisle. Once one brave soul breaks ranks, the defections start to snowball into an avalanche as opinions shift among the Republican voters who still shape their political positions around signals from their party’s leaders.
That scenario is also why you shouldn’t expect impeachment anytime soon.
To state another obvious proposition, avalanches don’t occur in deserts. The impeachment snowball can only form in the right environment, and today, that environment doesn’t exist. Even most Democrats want more investigation before launching impeachment proceedings, and 82 percent of Republicans oppose even that.
And while Democrats may dream that aggressive congressional investigations can prepare the ground for Watergate II, they’re likely to be disappointed. Watergate occurred in a country with much lower partisan polarization than modern-day America, so voters were easier to move. Moreover, the way the scandal unfolded was uncannily ideal for Richard Nixon’s political opponents. The revelations started small and gradually got bigger and bigger, with each revelation worse than the last, so that party stalwarts were gradually led to the realization that their president had committed a crime. And even so, Nixon almost survived; even after the last, worst revelations, 43 percent of Americans opposed impeachment.
Trump’s transgressions, by contrast, were almost immediately overhyped as hard evidence of an active conspiracy with a foreign power. Now that’s been downgraded to possible obstruction of justice, and public attention is bound to wander. Nor will it be easy to remove the president on a purely procedural charge without proving an underlying crime. Just ask the Republicans who futilely impeached Bill Clinton.
Moreover, as 2020 creeps closer, the argument strengthens for just letting voters sort things out. Republican politicians would certainly regard that course as the least likely to prompt a primary challenge. And to state the obvious one more time, that’s the course they’re going to take.
Megan McArdle is a Washington Post columnist. Follow her on Twitter @asymmetricinfo.