May 29, 2019
G. Terry Madonna & Michael L.Young
Should we or shouldn’t we?
The angst in Washington over impeaching President Trump is producing a “Hamlet on the Potomac” moment that even Shakespeare might appreciate. Democrats want to do it, but most Republicans don’t, and voters overall while divided along party lines are mostly opposed. (65% opposed)
Speaker Pelosi, while fully occupied by her daily hand to hand combat with the president, thinks impeachment is premature. Translation: Democrats will lose politically more than they gain if they impeach Trump. She is almost certainly correct about that. There is zero chance that a GOP controlled Senate responsible to try Trump if the House impeaches would ever vote to convict and thus remove him from office.
While articles of impeachment would deeply embarrass Trump and likely reveal much that would wound him, the cost benefit ratio is anything but clear. Independents, who well may determine the 2020 election, are lukewarm at best for impeaching. In addition, Trump’s hard-core constituency of a third or more of the electorate are more likely to be galvanized by impeachment then abandon Trump.
Against this background the arguments for and against impeachment have become almost ubiquitous in the national press – with Democratic partisans mostly arguing that Trump is unfit for office, has broken the law, and perhaps dangerous, justifying his removal. Republicans contrariwise argue as strenuously that Trump has been a successful president, and the architect of a booming economy that has produced both peace and prosperity.
What’s a bitterly divided country, already deafened by the toxic rhetorical drumbeat of the approaching 2020 presidential election to do?
Do we really need or want another divisive partisan battle about who should be president when we are only some 17 months from holding the election that will determine that question? Isn’t the ballot box the best way decisions of this magnitude are made in a democracy?
Unfortunately, too, often these days we do things because we can rather than because they are good for the country.
Republicans have been guilty of this recently with their failure to hold Supreme Court nomination hearings during Obama’s final year as well as their machinations to usurp a revered Senate institution like the filibuster to naked partisan ends.
Democrats, however, when in power, have not behaved better. They ran rough shod over Republican minorities through most of the New Deal period and more recently Obama undermined congressional majorities by greatly overusing executive orders. He used 276 of them between 2009 and 2017. Neither party is a paragon of political virtue.
But now Democrats can mend their ways (as well as provide an exemplar to Republicans) by choosing not to impeach just because they can do it. Moreover, there is a larger point here – one which Americans of both parties have been slow to recognize. Impeachment for presidents doesn’t work – it never has.
The authors of our constitution, gathered in Philadelphia in 1787, carefully considered the “Articles” that would delineate impeachment, Article 1, Section 3 and Article 2, Section 4. James Madison’s notes reveal the delegates were repeatedly frustrated about the process, tabling their deliberation multiple times before coming up with the imperfect solution we have today: impeachment in the House, followed by a trial in the Senate.
Had they set out to consciously produce a more convoluted politicized process they could not have done better than what they actually did. Consequently, impeachment of the president has only been used twice in the nation’s history (there have also been 15 federal judges impeached, one U.S. Senator and one cabinet officer.”
One of the two presidents impeached was post-Civil War President Andrew Johnson, and the other was Bill Clinton in 1998. Neither was convicted and removed from office, and both impeachment processes were fetid with naked political motivations.
More important, perhaps, both failed to remove a president. Johnson’s trial led to allegations that several senators had been bribed by prosecutors while Johnson himself filled out his term and was later elected to the U.S Senate. Clinton was acquitted outright in 1998 on the charges adopted by the House while the trial itself produced such a sharp backlash from voters that Clinton’s job performance rose and his party actually picked up five House seats in the 1998 midterm elections.
There well may be a better way to remove a president but without doubt there is no worse way than impeachment as it has been practiced.
The recent 25th amendment has been proposed as a way to handle presidential disability. But most scholars doubt it is practical beyond very narrow circumstances.
So, after some 230 years of national history we have had just one way that actually removes a president or keeps one—and that is our quadrennial presidential election. The next one is Tuesday, November 3, 2020. It’s not only a better solution than impeachment-it’s one that works.
Politically Uncorrected™ is published twice monthly, and previous columns can be viewed at http://www.fandm.edu/politics. The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of any institution or organization with which they are affiliated. This article may be used in whole or part only with appropriate attribution. Copyright © 2019 Terry Madonna and Michael Young