The Political Path to Impeachment

Calls for impeachment are no great novelty in U.S. politics, but serious discussion of the possibility is usually confined to the remote wings of whatever party is out of power. In the infant Trump presidency, however, there is already widespread speculation over the possibility as the administration has been immersed in chaos and scandal since the start and whispers about Trump’s mental stability have become increasingly public. The general line of thinking is that Trump won’t be impeached so long as Republicans control Congress and that is likely true. No president has been removed from office by impeachment – Johnson and Clinton were acquitted by the Senate and Nixon resigned before being impeached – and it is obviously unlikely that this will change in an era of one-party rule. There is, however, a path to impeachment – a narrow one to be sure, but one that cannot be entirely written off.

Trump Hearts Scandal

Although Trump and his allies are surely outraged that impeachment is even being discussed, the impetus behind all the fevered speculation and sudden interest in the 25th Amendment is the actions of Trump himself. His campaign was perpetually mired in scandal and controversy, and Trump has been unable or unwilling to assume a more presidential demeanor after assuming office.

Barely a month into his term the administration has already been roiled by blockbuster revelations that the campaign was in touch with Russian intelligence officials throughout the campaign and lied about it up until it made the papers. Trump has also left himself exposed to charges of corruption with a barely serious effort to resolve the conflicts of interest from his sprawling real estate business. When you consider the deluge of leaks about the administration, this administration seems to have positioned itself better than any in recent memory for a massive and debilitating scandal.

GOP Congressional Majorities Are Probably Safe…Probably.

If Trump does crack open the impeachment door through his own penchant for scandal and ineptitude, there may be political incentives for the GOP to go down that path. Although Trump isn’t as wildly unpopular as many would like to believe (at least with Republican voters), he is remarkably disliked for a new president, and his chaotic and polarizing administration isn’t winning over many converts. The GOP has built itself a firewall of gerrymandered districts to protect its majority in the House, but their stranglehold on the House isn’t unbreakable. The Republicans are also blessed with a highly favorable Senate map in 2018, but once again it isn’t impossible to imagine scenarios where their majority is imperiled by a scandal-prone and incompetent president. A long-shot threat to the Republican congressional majorities is unlikely to drive any serious impeachment proceedings, but if Trump sinks further into the muck of scandal the political risks will surely factor into their calculations.

The Dream of President Pence

Another potential incentive for the GOP is vice president Pence. It’s become almost a cliché for well-sourced articles to note that, behind several closed doors and under a blanket, Congressional Republicans express deep discomfort with the ill-prepared and erratic president. To say that they would be more comfortable with a President Pence would be a massive understatement. Pence served six terms in the House, served as chairman of the Republican conference for two years (a stepping stone position held in the past by Gerald Ford, Dick Cheney and John Boehner), and left Washington to become governor of a conservative Midwestern state. The House GOP bromance with Pence won’t inspire impeachment hearings of course, but having one of their own waiting in the wings is another potential incentive.

Remember the Autopsy!

Another political calculation that could serve as a factor in any unprecedented impeachment proceedings is the very real possibility that the Trump presidency is wrecking the GOP brand. Although the party won a smashing victory on November 8th, there are reasons to believe that it may be short lived. While Trump claimed the 46th largest electoral college share in U.S. history, the GOP still lost the popular vote for the fifth time in the last six elections. The House majority is protected by elaborately-designed districts (the GOP got 49% of the total national vote in House elections but secured 55% of the seats), but these districts will be redrawn after the 2020 census, and in the meantime court challenges to tangled-yarn-shaped districts have made progress in Wisconsin and North Carolina. In the Senate, Trump’s unpopularity may check Republican’s ability to capitalize on the favorable 2018 Senate map, and the party has 22 seats to defend in the 2020 elections. Needless to say, a lot can change between now and tomorrow, but the GOP is a party with some obvious long-term challenges and a firm anchor to its base.

Any possibility that the Republicans will take down Trump in the name of the future viability is belied by recent history. The GOP has shown itself to be even more enthusiastic than the Democratic Party about shooting itself in the foot as a testament to ideological purity. In 2010 the Republicans virtually gave away the Senate majority by nominating a slate of lackluster candidates, including the man who introduced the term “legitimate rape” to our political lexicon and another candidate who ran an ad to address rumors that she had dabbled in witchcraft.

After Obama was reelected in 2012, the party commissioned an “autopsy” of the race to examine how the GOP could broaden its appeal. Virtually every aspect of  that report (immigration reform, minority outreach, don’t elect as many rich people) has been wholly and completely repudiated by the Trump campaign and administration. One author of the report even left the party.

Politics, of course, turns on short-term considerations and most Republican officials will cheerfully appease Trump so long as he is in power. However, it doesn’t take a political whiz to scroll through the demographic breakdowns of Trump’s approval ratings to see that see that he is underwater with moderates, every minority group, and young voters. The party cannot sustain its viability solely with conservative white voters born before 1970. This is a long-term calculation with little relevance to many well-protected Republican officeholders, but party officials will certainly notice the trends.

Incompetence Transcends Partisanship. Sort of. Maybe.

One thing several million people have realized lately is that Donald Trump does not seem prepared to be president. His administration has been erratic, prone to unforced errors, and continually mired in distracting controversies (inauguration crowds, Nordstrom…). “Professionalism” is not a word many people would use to describe the Trump administration. Republicans have tacitly acknowledged this at times. The safe way for Republicans to criticize the disastrous roll out of Trump’s travel ban was to say that it was not properly rolled out, which is an understated way of saying that it was an incredible disaster. If Trump and his administration continue to fumble through way through every attempt at policy, this could seriously undercut an idea that was central to Trump’s popularity, which is that he is no-nonsense boss who can “get things done.” Tens of millions of voters may believe in Trump regardless of what he does, but there are plenty of others who won’t abide massive incompetence.

In an era of hyper-partisanship, it seems trite to speak to any conception of national purpose that is not firmly established in one partisan camp and well-fortified with grievance and outrage, but if Trump demonstrates his inability to serve as a partisan warrior, perhaps Republicans will find time to consider the well-being of the country.

 

A Mournful Snub?

As soon as the Politico alerts and text messages announcing Antonin Scalia’s death began resounding across Washington D.C. on a frigid Saturday afternoon, the suffocating shroud of politics was quickly lain his death. That isn’t entirely surprising as right and left are lurching further towards ideological purity in an already riotous presidential race, but it is unfortunate to see the ease with which the conversation moves from mourning to politics with barely a cursory pause for remembrance. However, 2016 is a political year in America, and the death of a conservative icon surely isn’t going to change that.

Now to contribute to the trend with a few words on the politicization of Scalia’s funeral…

After the political earthquake that was Scalia’s death, President Obama’s decision to not attend the funeral might be seen as something of an aftershock, at least as far as conservative media is concerned. Once the news broke that Obama would not be in attendance at Scalia’s memorial service, the reaction from conservative media was sharp and swift. The Fox News punditry was quick to express their outrage and Twitter contributed its usual level of indignation and ire to the conversation. A column on Real Clear Politics ripped Obama’s “shameful” decision while conservative blogs circulated rumors that Obama was planning a round of golf during the funeral. Josh Earnest attempted to downplay the decision to the press, but within hours of his appearance even mainstream media outlets were painting a picture of an administration on the defensive.

To be fair to Obama, there may well be sound reasons for his non-attendance. He and Scalia weren’t close friends, and there’s little doubt that their legal and political worldviews were in continual opposition. Additionally, despite the instant politicization of All Things Scalia after his passing, the funeral will surely be a time for the late justice’s family to mourn their loss. The presence of the president, complete with the necessary security entourage, might be a distraction during a solemn event. Obama will also be visiting the Supreme Court the day before the funeral to pay his respects. In short, there may completely sensible and considerate reasons the president is not attending the service.

On top of that, there is no clear precedent for attending the funerals of deceased justices. George W. Bush eulogized William Rehnquist at his funeral, but Bill Clinton only attended two of the five funerals of Supreme Court Justices who died during his administration (although all were retired at the time of their deaths). Dwight Eisenhower was not in attendance at Robert Jackson’s funeral in 1954 (though he sent a cross made of carnations) but did attend the funeral of Chief Justice Fred Vinson the year before.

With no clear precedent, Obama’s decision is hardly the historic snub that conservative blogs have breathlessly written about. And if Obama had indeed decided to attend, it’s certainly not unthinkable, if not likely, that some on the right would regard it as a political stunt. However, without knowing the particular reasons for Obama’s decision, it’s hard not to wonder if this isn’t a misstep by the White House and a missed chance to strike a non-partisan note in a  hyper-partisan year. Respectfully attending the funeral of a departed conservative icon is unlikely to change the tenor of the political battle that will surround Obama’s nominee to replace Scalia, but it may have been a nice reminder that such gestures are still possible.

Additionally, the decision to not attend Scalia’s funeral, unfairly or not, brings to mind past events that Obama has missed, with the anti-terrorism march in Paris after the Charlie Hebdo attacks standing out as the most noteworthy recent example. Although the justification for these scheduling decisions may be sound (many sources pointed out the Paris march would have been a security nightmare), at times it does seem that the administration is underestimating the symbolic value of these events for many people. Republicans are going to vociferously oppose Obama’s nominee to replace Scalia whether he was at the funeral or not, but showing up with carnations might have been a nice gesture, and given us a brief reprieve from the culture war that Scalia fought so vigorously.

Obama’s ISIS Detour

In many ways, Obama’s ISIS speech this week was a successful rebuttal to his own cringe-worthy sound bite announcing that “we don’t have a strategy yet” to counteract the group of rampaging extremists. The president outlined his plan of action, unambiguously declared the group a terrorist organization, and articulated his reasons for acting militarily. For the most part the speech sounded strong, decisive, and presidential. Unfortunately, Obama’s remarks pivoted away from ISIS three quarters of the way through the speech. In a rather forced change of topic, Obama announced that we live in a time of great change (who knew?) and described how America has been able to “bounce back.” Here’s a quick recap of the examples he gave:

  • “Our technology companies and universities are unmatched”
  • “Our manufacturing and auto industries are thriving”
  • “Energy independence is closer than it’s been in decades’
  • “Our businesses are in the longest uninterrupted stretch of job creation in our history”

While these points may be true, they have nothing to do with ISIS. Additionally, every one of these points would be strongly contested by virtually any Republican member of Congress. Perhaps the president wanted to take advantage of the national stage to paint a more favorable picture of the country’s recovery ahead of the midterms, but these assertions, true or not, came at the expense of the speech as a whole. The jobs line is particularly glaring. Although the monthly jobs report has shown the economy adding jobs for every month since Oct 2010, the recovery has been frustratingly slow and tepid in many parts of the country. This statement isn’t untrue, but inserting a positive assessment of a sometimes exasperating economic recovery into a speech about a terrorist organization doesn’t make much sense. More importantly, it detracts from the gravitas of a speech that should be focused on meeting an external threat to the country and its allies.

From a political standpoint, it may have been difficult to pass up a chance to score points on economic issues during a primetime speech. However, Obama’s rhetorical swerve from the topic at hand may have cost him an opportunity for a rare bipartisan moment. Given the fact that the president’s approval rating is a drag on virtually every contested congressional race, this may have been more valuable than a positive paragraph about the economy.