Editor’s Note: Julian Zelizer is a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University, and author, with Kevin Kruse, of the new book “Fault Lines: A History of the United States Since 1974.” Follow him on Twitter at @julianzelizer. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion at CNN.
This weekend, Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi continued to deliver tough remarks about President Donald Trump. During the party’s state convention in California, Pelosi railed against the way she claims the President has been abusing his power.
With chants for impeachment coming from the floor, Pelosi said: “President Trump will be held accountable for his actions. In the Congress, in the courts, and in the court of public opinion, we will defend our democracy.” Yet insisting that the case for an impeachment had to be “ironclad,” she once again held back from taking the next logical step: announcing that Democrats would vote on beginning the impeachment process.
Pelosi and other Democratic leaders have been hesitant to pull the trigger on impeachment. They fear that undertaking the process will further divide the nation, without producing tangible results in a Republican Senate hell-bent on protecting Trump, and that they could end up triggering a political backlash against the Democrats – just as the GOP suffered in the 1998 midterms. Better to continue with the oversight investigations, find the best candidate and win back the White House in 2020, Pelosi likes to reason.
But the resistance to impeachment proceedings has rested on a number of faulty assumptions about what happens if the Democrats go down this path. Before Pelosi reaches her final decision or allows the clock to run out, there are important political realities that the party leaders need to consider.
Regardless of whether Senate Republicans ever vote against removing Trump from office, the President and his party will claim that he was exonerated by special counsel Robert Mueller. In other words, the actions of House Democrats are irrelevant. If they refuse to undertake impeachment proceedings, the President will continue to claim the Mueller investigation was a two-year witch hunt – and that ultimately House Democrats reached the same conclusion.
But a House vote in favor of articles of impeachment would not inevitably benefit the President, as some Democrats have been arguing. The likely revelation of more possible abuses of power as a result of impeachment proceedings, along with the extensive findings in the Mueller report, could easily drag down his already low approval ratings. Under an impeachment process, the House Judiciary Committee would have greater leverage in the courts to obtain documents and testimony, while administration members would be at greater risk if they continued to stonewall.
A majority of Americans don’t like the President because of the way that he conducts himself and because of the way that he has used (or possibly abused) his power – key factors in the historic Democratic victories during the 2018 midterms. A formal mark of condemnation by the House of Representatives through impeachment would only heighten that perception. It would also put Republicans in the House and Senate on record as to where they stand on the way that he conducts himself.
Just because a majority of Democratic legislators do not currently support impeachment, does not mean that their opinion cannot change quickly. Many Democrats are taking their cues from Pelosi and her colleagues. They are waiting to see her give her stamp of approval to the need for impeachment proceedings and waiting for those proceedings to allow for the full discovery of what the President has or has not done.
If both of those things happen, there is a strong chance you would see more Democratic politicians and voters coming out in favor of the process. With the Speaker pushing back and without formal proceedings underway, voters are left with halting oversight hearings that the President has systematically stonewalled.
Recent polling suggests that Democratic leaders are reading public opinion the wrong way. Even before Democrats do anything, public opinion is not as clear as some opponents of impeachment proceedings. A new CNN poll shows that 41% of Americans believe that Trump should be impeached and removed from office.
While that is not a majority, it is roughly where the American public was (43%) with Nixon in March of 1974 – several months after the House voted to start impeachment proceedings and almost a year since the Watergate select committee conducted its televised hearings.
If Democrats are hoping that avoiding the impeachment process will turn the next year into a period filled with high-level discussions about public policy and ideas, they are sorely mistaken. With the decentralized oversight hearings by House Democrats tied up in legal knots, the media will just end up shifting to the administration’s probable investigations into law enforcement and intelligence agencies.
We are in for many months of Trumpian chaos and investigative furor. But no matter what happens, the 2020 election is going to be extremely tough for Democrats. The power of incumbency, the strong economy and Republican enthusiasm for Trump will make him hard to beat. Democrats are going to need to offer an answer to the question raised by voters in 2018: How do you check a president who sees almost no restraint to their power?
While the decision about starting the impeachment process is, and should be, extraordinarily difficult, Democrats should not rest their case on weak assumptions. More importantly, they need to make some decisions based on principle, especially when facing such overwhelming evidence of presidential misconduct. If they need some words of support, perhaps they should turn to Republican Congressman Justin Amash, who was willing to take a stand for what has become pretty obvious to much of the country.