In my first post for Ordinary Times, I wrote that impeachment was extremely unlikely and that Dems would do well to suppress such foolish talk.
If you care about Democratic chances, tamp down that impeachment talk. Remember how the GOP wasted all their ammo firing at a blue dress in 1998.
Given the recent Michael Cohen guilty plea, chances of impeachment have moved from nil to slim. For those of you who have been hiking the Appalachian trail, the president’s former personal lawyer and fixer, Michael Cohen, pleaded guilty to eight felony counts which included one for paying off former Playboy model Karen McDougal (yes I know that’s not the only thing about her). That payoff, according to the plea, was a violation of campaign finance law because it provided material benefit to the campaign in a value that exceeds personal contribution limits. As of this writing, we are on day six of media fire and fury.
It’s serious – but don’t buy the pundits who claim it’s a smoking gun. It’s not necessarily the beginning of the end. We have a long way to go. Every media outlet is running with the line that Cohen was acting “at the direction of the candidate.” Although all presidential campaigns run afoul of campaign finance law (yes, all of them), it’s usually due to oversight issues, mistakes, carelessness, or bad agent-actors within the campaign.
This, however, is a unique type of violation – a third-party payoff to quash a negative story with the candidate being alleged to have been directly involved. Trump supporters are already pointing out examples from other presidential campaigns. If you turn off the AC, you can hear them in the distance, “The Obama campaign was fined $375,000 in 2008 and not a single voice called for his impeachment!” If Cohen’s payoff is framed as a “campaign finance infraction,” it will lose its sting.
Yet I still believe it perceptibly raises the likelihood of impeachment. Given ongoing revelations, what is the most likely outcome of this reality show? Will Trump get voted off the island? I see three recipes – all of them fraught.
Recipe 1: Red Trickle
I still think the House will go blue, but that the Senate will remain narrowly Republican. The GOP may even pick up a seat in the Senate. Still, GOP senators may finally entertain impeachment as the only solution to eliminate constant humiliation. This would be the “enough is enough” scenario. What would be the tipping point?
For most politicians (yes from either side), impeachment is not a moral question. Senators aren’t going to come to the altar and turn into crusaders for justice. The key is the matrix of political costs. The wages of political sin are exacted by leadership following constituents. Why did Democratic Senators stand by Bill Clinton in 1998 despite his ugly behavior? Hint: it wasn’t a principled position to protect progressive gains. They weren’t providing a bulwark against GOP overreach. Those are talking points. In spite of his wandering penis, Clinton remained popular – and especially popular with his Democratic base. A senator’s chances of reelection go down when he or she thwarts the selectorate. (A selectorate is the universe of people a politician must keep happy; see Mesquita.)
The GOP faces a similar choice. Trump is embarrassing, lazy, mercurial, and pugilistic. He creates a constant stream of asinine gaffes and incidents. I believe GOP congresspersons would love to be rid of him. Indeed, Trump receives barely tepid support from GOP Senators and Representatives on specific issues while generally there’s a lot of head shaking and eye rolling. Yet his approval rating among the base is startlingly high at 85 percent. The base likes his fiery disruption. Every time they see a DC institutional norm in flames, it generates Beatles-esque level fainting and euphoria in the front row.
This base controls the political cost. Senators are great at steering the ship once they see which way the wind is blowing. They know how to get out in front of a trend. If that base approval number drops into the 50s or lower, senators may peel off to support impeachment. Once the floodgates open, there could be a steady stream of defections. At that point, impeachment and removal would be a foregone conclusion. I give this scenario a slim but not insignificant chance.
Recipe 2: More Of The Same
The new normal is both that everything is terrible and things ain’t so bad. We’ve been here before. Remember the rush of impeachment fervor following the Trump Tower meeting revelations? Washington elites and media folks are a mosh pit of angst while most of the country moves on as before.
It’s possible that this blows over and becomes part of the lore of this new Teflon Don. His administration produces a constant torrent of ignominy. The coffin is so full of nails there’s no room for the last one. It’s like nothing ever before seen. It’s the reverse of the boy who cried wolf. Instead of a false alarm, the boy is constantly sounding the alarm because wolves really are there. Eventually, he says, “Hey there’s a wolf!” and everyone says “We know, shut up already!” But without a breather, bad news is just more of the same – the new normal. So this could result in nothing at all – no impeachment and no cost exacted upon the Twitter king. I think the mid-term elections are going to throw a wrench into this scenario, but it remains possible.
Recipe 3: The Bad Bargain
Finally, there is the most likely scenario. In my original article, I said Democrats would push for impeachment if they take the House, and would then be stymied by the GOP Senate. That, unfortunately, is the scene that’s playing out. Had there been no Cohen revelation, Dems may have blinked on impeachment. But Cohen’s “at the direction of the candidate” line drips with John Dean. It’s too juicy to pass up. It’s like whoever wrote that line is trolling them. Recall my earlier prediction:
I know it seems crazy given such a strong hand [on impeachment], but they [Dems] will have to give ground, compromise, and work across the aisle to find a way forward. Each GOP senator who crosses the aisle to vote in favor of conviction will need sufficient political cover to do so. The country will need to see the impeachment trial as a clearly bipartisan initiative taken on reluctantly by all for the good of the union.
I fear there will be nothing reluctant about the Democrats. In most Godzilla movies, an overzealous character insists that the only option is nuclear. But whenever you try to kill Godzilla with a nuclear weapon it always makes him stronger.
To paraphrase the president, Democrats will move on him like the B word. With sky-is-falling bells ringing in the progressive echo chamber, their own selectorate will expect them to. They will pass articles with little or no GOP support. Little concession or political cover will be given to GOP Senators or Congressmen. They will be on a self-appointed mission to save our democracy even if that means turning it into a one-party state. Buoyed by a surge in the mid-terms, they will believe that the country is finally, irrevocably moving in their direction. It will be a misread on par with Gingrich’s “conservative mandate” calculation. In the end, the Senate will squelch the dream and Trump will survive, a martyr. He’ll have a wheelbarrow full of triumphalist tweets in all caps and he’ll not be afraid to use them.
I hope I’m wrong. I hope if a Democratic Congress passes articles of impeachment, they manage to get at least a patina of GOP support. I hope the Senate, receiving the articles, manages to convict Trump with bipartisan support. If it is not going to be successful, it’s better left alone. I believe there are those in the GOP who secretly relish the idea of being able to play Clintonesque martyr to a bloodthirsty Democratic Congress. Why give them that stage?
The Rule of Law Argument
Finally, some of my readers will remind me of the rule of law argument. Political considerations aside, the president is not above the law. If he broke the law, he should suffer the consequences. Although true, our system does not allow political considerations to be laid aside. Impeachment (which is the remedy) is a political act pretextually anchored in law. Impeachment doesn’t mean the president is above the law; it means he is not above Congress.
When a bad actor becomes president, Congress is supposed to step in, cooperate, and take up their responsibility to remove him. The consequences still accrue but sometimes they happen after the fact. Clinton, though escaping conviction at his impeachment trial, was still disbarred and paid a series of civil fines and settlements over his behavior after he left office in 2001. Clearly, he was not above the law – and although his behavior did not amount to criminal charges, he still paid severely.
I’m ready for savvy readers to pillory my take. I would only note that I’m not making a normative case here. I’m simply trying to lay out possible paths and analyze where they might take us.
I’ve been clear that Trump is a bad apple. I’ve also been clear on a few other things on which folks are less apt to comment. The system can handle a bad president. The president can be influential if he is skillful, but he has little or no unfettered power. In spite of all the look-at-me hubbub, the current administration is basically run of the mill conservative. For the left or right, winning Congress or the White House doesn’t mean conservative voters fade away or progressive voters move to Europe. Both world-views are here. Both world-views are influential and powerful regardless of the results of elections.
All of these ideas inform my thoughts of “what to do about Trump”. I look forward to your comments. Let me have it.