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Democrats' Risky Bet on Impeachment

A Commentary By Michael Barone

Friday, September 27, 2019

Precedents abound in a country whose first presidential election took place 230 years ago, that has seen 41 presidential contests between two political parties founded 187 and 165 years ago. Three of our 44 presidents have faced impeachment proceedings -- Andrew Johnson, Richard Nixon and Bill Clinton -- and now it seems Donald Trump will be the fourth.

Democrats have been itching to oust Trump from office since the 9 p.m. Eastern hour on election night nearly three years ago, when it became clear he had been elected. High law enforcement and intelligence officials started trying to keep him from the White House starting months earlier and for three years pushed the theory that he and his campaign were acting in collusion with Russia, even though they had little evidence aside from a dossier full of Russia-supplied hearsay, whose lurid claims were never verified.

Collusiongate finally collapsed, in the words of New York Times editor Dean Baquet, "the day Bob Mueller walked off that witness stand," when "our readers who want Donald Trump to go away" realized that wasn't going to happen.

So, now, weeks before the promised release of inspector general reports on law enforcement misconduct, we hear that a whistleblower had been told Trump abused his powers in a telephone conversation with the president of Ukraine. On Tuesday afternoon, Trump announced he would release the transcript, and Speaker Nancy Pelosi announced that the Democratic-majority House was officially considering impeachment.

The transcript released Wednesday doesn't read exactly as the still-anonymous whistleblower had claimed. Trump asked the newly installed Ukrainian president to investigate 2016 anti-Trump efforts there. Democrats claimed Trump offered a quid pro quo by suggesting he'd released U.S. aid he'd been holding up. But Trump said nothing about that. Given the American president's broad powers, any request the president makes of a foreign government could be called a threat.

Trump also mentioned Joe Biden's son Hunter Biden, who had a $50,000-a-month contract with a Ukraine firm. And he adverted to the elder Biden's public boast that as vice president, he threatened to deny Ukraine $1 billion in aid if the government didn't fire the prosecutor investigating the firm.

On Collusiongate, Democrats followed the Nixon precedent, allowing a special prosecutor and congressional committees to conduct long investigations, with numerous leaks to sympathetic media. That produced evidence that made impeachment certain, and Nixon resigned. But Collusiongate didn't follow precedent.

Now Democrats seem to be following the Andrew Johnson precedent. Johnson's Republican critics hated him for obstructing equal rights for free blacks and for his vitriolic and scurrilous oratory. Proceedings began on Feb. 24, 1868. The House voted for impeachment on March 3, and on May 16, the Senate voted 35-19 against him, 1 vote short of the two-thirds majority needed to remove him from office.

So, Democrats' course is, as my Washington Examiner colleague Byron York puts it: "Move fast. Don't withhold judgment. And don't wait for the results of a long, ponderous investigation." Pelosi seems primed to push for a quick vote as soon as 218 yeas are in sight. But in the 53-47 Republican Senate, absent new facts or changed public opinion, there are far fewer votes for removal than in 1868.

Current polling shows voters oppose impeachment by nearly 2-1 margins, similar to when Bill Clinton was impeached in 1998. Both parties thought impeachment would help them politically. Clinton's job approval rose sharply, but his personal ratings slumped badly. The former helped keep him in office, while the latter hobbled his chosen successor, Al Gore, two years later.

Speaker Newt Gingrich forecast big Republican gains, but they actually lost four seats in November 1998, and Gingrich lost his speakership. But Republicans held onto their House majority that year and in the next three congressional elections.

Those largely positive results reflect late 1990s contentment and the fact that both parties had intellectually serious arguments in line with their values. Republicans argued that Clinton's lies in a federal court proceeding violated his constitutional duty to faithfully execute the laws. Democrats argued that his offense was only a personal matter unrelated to his official duties.

Donald Trump's support has remained impervious to charges of personal or professional misconduct, just as his detractors remain impervious to claims that his policies have been successful. What could hurt Democrats in times of discontent, when impeachment is unpopular, is their opportunism in seizing on any excuse to vent their rage. The Ukrainian phone call is much smaller potatoes than collusion with Russia would have been.

But Democrats "who want Donald Trump to go away" just couldn't wait to let voters make that choice. They risk four more years of angry frustration.

Michael Barone is a senior political analyst for the Washington Examiner, resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and longtime co-author of The Almanac of American Politics.

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