To hear some people tell it, House Democrats are like the dog that finally caught the car. Voting to impeach Donald Trump could turn out to be politically suicidal. Essentially because voters turned against Republicans for impeaching Bill Clinton — the GOP lost five seats in the 1998 midterms, ending the political career of Speaker Newt Gingrich — conventional wisdom assumes that Democrats will pay a similar price for acting against Trump.
It's even been suggested that Speaker Nancy Pelosi save herself and her party by offering a motion of censure, thus surrendering to the president's bullying, and to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell's vow to hold a purely perfunctory Senate trial, calling no witnesses and rushing to a party-line acquittal.
In this formulation, Pelosi becomes a political battered wife, fearful that impeachment would only make her antagonist more dangerous and inflame his cult-like supporters.
Well, that's not going to happen.
Conventional wisdom regarding impeachment depends entirely upon the Clinton example. "Going back to the 1990s," Josh Marshall points out, "the elite national press, especially in Washington, D.C., was highly, highly invested in the idea that a major scandal would and should bring Bill Clinton down." After one media-hyped Clinton scandal after another fizzled — remember Susan McDougal in chains? — catching the big dope with his pants around his ankles excited tout le monde, as they say in Paris: everybody who matters.
But the voting public wasn't buying. Whether titillated or offended, most Americans didn't think Clinton's sins called for impeachment. "The poll data is striking," Marshall explains. "Support for impeaching Clinton never got as high as 30%." What's more, because it was about sex, pretty much everybody with a TV set knew all about it. Republicans forced the issue anyway.
Public opinion regarding Trump is very different. The president got angry about a recent Fox News poll showing that fully 50% of Americans favor his impeachment and removal (my emphasis). Another 4% are iffy about dumping him. Given that U.S. policy toward Ukraine is rather less stimulating to most than Oval Office sex, these are remarkable numbers. Given the strength of the evidence, moreover, support for Trump can only go down.
For public consumption, Mitch McConnell acts as if he and Trump have got Democrats exactly where they want them. Regarding an impeachment trial, the majority leader vows to call no witnesses, subpoena no documents, and stampede the GOP Senate to a quick and dirty acquittal.
"Everything I do during this, I'm coordinating with the White House counsel," McConnell boasted on Fox News the other day. "There will be no difference between the president's position and our position as to how to handle this to the extent that we can."
A more servile approach to his constitutionally mandated duties would be hard to imagine. Several GOP senators have also announced that they're prepared to ignore their oath of impartiality and vote to acquit the president — Ted Cruz and Lindsey Graham among them. They're not merely willing to declare Trump a king, above and outside the law, they actually brag about it.
It should be noted that Cruz and Graham represent states where authoritarian Trumpism is broadly popular.
Several Republican senators up for re-election do not.
Anyway, what if they're all bluffing? Can it be that McConnell, a shrewd political strategist, fully understands the weakness of Trump's position? Has he actually got the 51 votes required to stage a sham trial? It's not clear that he does. Also, what would such a spectacle do for Republican hopes of keeping a Senate majority after the 2020 election?
It would appear that they fear that a full airing of the evidence regarding Trump and Rudy Giuliani's nutball scheme to withhold military aid from Ukraine — a democracy under attack by Russia — in order to extort its president into announcing a bogus investigation of Joe Biden would hurt the party even more.
So here's the bad news for Trumpists: With half the American public already favoring his impeachment and removal, the rest expect a serious reckoning. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., supports adopting the same rules that governed Clinton's 1999 trial — unanimously approved by 100-0 vote.
According to a recent Washington Post-ABC News poll, strong majorities agree: Let's have a real trial. Americans think Trump's top aides should testify by a margin of 71% to 22%. "Among Democrats, 79% say Trump should let his advisers appear before the Senate, while 64% of Republicans agree. Among independents, 72% favor their appearance."
No doubt many Trump supporters believe that the testimony of senior White House aides could only bolster his case. (Although what defendant anywhere, ever, has fought to keep exculpatory testimony hidden?)
Trump's removal by a two-thirds Senate vote remains highly unlikely. But a proper impeachment trial would serve two important purposes: to inform the public and defend the U.S. Constitution.
Arkansas Times columnist Gene Lyons is a National Magazine Award winner and co-author of "The Hunting of the President" (St. Martin's Press, 2000). Email Lyons at firstname.lastname@example.org.