What Next

The Political Case for Impeachment

When we dismiss the idea because it “won’t make it through the Senate,” we’re fundamentally forgetting how politics works.

Nancy Pelosi in front of some American flags.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi at the U.S. Capitol on March 27.
Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images

In the wake of the Mueller report, you’ve probably heard the legal argument for starting impeachment proceedings against President Donald Trump. Perhaps you’ve also heard the moral argument for impeachment. But what about the political case for impeachment? Jamelle Bouie joined Mary Harris, the host of Slate’s daily news podcast What Next, to discuss. Their conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Mary Harris: So, Democrats are going to have this conference call Monday. They’re all going to get on the line and try to figure out what they’re going to do about the Mueller report. What do you think that’s going to be like?

Jamelle Bouie: I don’t quite know. In the immediate aftermath of its release, Steny Hoyer, a Maryland Democrat, who is a high-ranking House Democrat, hand-waved the idea of impeachment away, and Nancy Pelosi, the House speaker, has been skeptical of impeachment going back to last year.

Yeah, she said he’s just not worth it, right?

Right. I think there was an attitude amongst senior Democrats that the best option would be just to make a case against him in an election year and beat him.

You’re a really calm and reasoned thinker, but I wonder, on a scale of one to totally apoplectic, how upset are you about the way that the Democrats are talking about impeachment, and the way they’re already talking about, “maybe we should just set that aside”?

I do think that there’s a real lack of political imagination on display from Democratic leaders. I think there’s a thinking, and this may have spread to voters at large, but there’s this idea that impeachment is only worthwhile if you can convict and remove the president, and that if you cannot do that, then impeachment becomes a political burden. It could hurt the party in the 2020 elections and may even energize Republicans going ahead into them. This just generally strikes me as putting the cart well before the horse here. There actually isn’t great evidence that failing to convict and remove would hurt the party that initiated impeachment. In this context, President Trump is very unpopular. The reason he’s very unpopular is that voters who like his handling of the economy dislike his handling of everything else and believe him to be compromised ethically.

And that the midterm elections were decided, in large part, on widespread anti-Trump energy, among both Democrats and people who don’t necessarily identify with the Democratic Party. If we’re thinking about this simply in political terms, what impeachment is, which is a process, right? A process, an investigation, argument-making that takes place over some amount of time.

What impeachment does is take all of the things about Trump that people do not like, put them in the context of unfitness, allow Democrats to impose a singular narrative on all of these investigations, and keep them in the public eye for some unknown amount of time. Maybe a year, maybe longer than that, and that seems like the kind of thing that would generate anti-Trump energy, and remind voters what they don’t like about him ahead of a presidential election.

The argument on the other side is just that we can see a way forward, and we can see the Senate is not going to vote in favor of this. We can see the House is probably not even going to vote in favor of this, so what’s the point?

I don’t think it’s clear how the House will react, but the argument that you shouldn’t do this because the Senate won’t convict, or the Senate wouldn’t convict and remove the president, I think, misses the point of impeachment and is a very instrumentalist view of things.

I think that process is really important, and I think that process has value, even if the Senate never convicts.

Explain that, because you’ve said the process itself is valuable. You’ve said it’s kind of like trust the process … is the argument basically that it takes time, and it allows this common narrative to be built in the country? It gives a moment to do that?

Yes. I think it’s easy to overestimate how much ordinary people have been following any of this, and so what impeachment does, it’s the big news-grabbing thing, to put it crudely, that focuses attention, and the public can say, “Here are these ongoing hearings that are going into what we now know as documented criminal actions, or would be criminal actions from the president.”

And through all that, there are other avenues of investigation to take. Simply initiating it, and going through with that process, I think what it turns is a Washington-focused conversation right now, into a public deliberation. I think people who insist that they know what the outcome of that is are not being flexible enough or creative enough about what could happen in the wake of this.

If investigation, and inquiry, and hearings reveal even worse behavior, then some Republicans may decide that it’s just too much, and they may begin to publicly break with the president.

If this does come to a vote, and the House votes to impeach the president, and it goes to the Senate, there will be a trial in the Senate, and then Republican senators will have to go on record saying that despite all of this evidence of misbehavior and criminal conduct, we are not going to vote to remove the president, and that itself is an important political statement, that at least clarifies the stakes for the public.

I think what is being missed in all of this is that although this is an intensely political thing, it’s also the case that impeachment is in the Constitution for a reason, and arguably, House Democrats have a constitutional obligation to go forward with this process.

If they know, and we do know from the Mueller report, that the president repeatedly attempted to obstruct justice, directed his subordinates to break the law, if we know that, then I think it obligates people with the power to do so, to initiate proceedings to attempt to hold him to account.

If you cannot remove him, if that fails, you can still make the argument that right now, the governing political party is so corrupt, or so devoted to this president, that they refuse to go where the evidence leads them, and that will need to change to make sure this doesn’t happen again.

I saw this presidential scholar who said something really interesting. She said the only reason Trump is not Nixon right now is because of Congress, which is what you’re saying, but also because of conservative media, and you’re talking about how Washington needs to do this narrative building, but I feel like Washington is also really scared that in doing this narrative building, they’re not going to be able to overcome the narrative on the other side.

This is probably a different conversation for a different day, but I think a thing what’s happened in the Trump years is that Trump opponents, general liberals, observers, in the course of recognizing the power of conservative media, have overestimated and overstated what its reach is.

Yes, the president has a dedicated base. Yes, that base overlaps considerably with a broad conservative media audience, but relative to the public at large, even relative to the people who vote, the people who consume conservative media on a regular basis are a pretty small percentage.

Most people don’t absorb that stuff, or don’t follow it closely. Most people don’t know all that much, and so the goal here isn’t to convince people who are already Trump supporters, Trump friendly, or soaked in the world of conservative media. The goal is to reach everyone else.

What I find baffling, I guess, is the extent to which opponents of the president, and many Democrats, and many observers have simply presupposed that there’s no way to shape public narratives, that politics is purely a game of reaction, and that one reacts to what the public says they want, or says they care about, and if that doesn’t work, then there’s nothing else you can do.

But we know, simply from the fact that Donald Trump is the president, that we can move and shape public opinion, and public behavior in unexpected and unanticipated ways, and so why not work at that? Why not use this clear procedure within the Constitution to do something about the fact that the president of the United States does not value the Constitution, is lawless, or has attempted to act in a lawless manner, and wants to serve another four years to do more of the same?

Why cede the narrative to Trump, and make this all about him?

There’s two things. The first is that next year’s election is just going to be about Trump; there’s no way to avoid it. He is, to borrow from the comedian John Mulaney, he is the horse in the hospital, and there’s no way to avoid the fact that there is a horse in the hospital, and that we’ve got to do something about it.

I don’t think that talking about, and explicitly highlighting the transgressive element of Trump, is somehow stooping to his level, or fighting on his terms. I think fighting on his terms is essentially seeding the field to him, and letting him frame the way to discuss these things.

There’s this idea, among reporters even, that the only people who care about this stuff live in coastal cities. People in the Midwest, people in the South, people in the West, they aren’t rubes. They follow the news to the best that they can, they’re aware of this stuff, and even if they don’t know it chapter and verse, people can be concerned about things that aren’t just their pocketbook, and it’s important to speak to those things as well.

It’s strange, and I guess this is the last point on this, it’s strange that at the same time I’m seeing arguments that this is not worth talking about, the surprise upstart in the Democratic race for the nomination is Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Indiana, whose entire pitch to the country is about these symbolic issues.

So it’s one or the other. Is it that no one cares about symbolic stuff, and we should just focus on things like health care, or is it that people do care about symbolic stuff, and they do want the president to represent something in particular, and we should speak to that, too.

OK, but I feel like the Democrats got burned the last time they tried to shape the narrative around something like this, with the Kavanaugh hearings, where they came out pretty strongly against Brett Kavanaugh, and then saw that used against them in election after election, and I feel like they’re looking at impeachment through those lenses.

I think that’s the conventional wisdom about the Kavanaugh effect, but if you look at what we’ve learned since the Kavanaugh hearings, here’s what happened. After the Kavanaugh hearings, Democrats won 40 seats in the House of Representatives. There’s a new report by a public opinion research firm, PerryUndem. They conducted a wide-ranging survey of voters in December after the Kavanaugh hearings, and what they found is that the Kavanaugh hearings may have made people feel so unfavorably about Brett Kavanaugh that they voted for Democrats, that the net effect of the whole Kavanaugh controversy may have been to increase the vote share for Democratic candidates.

While Kavanaugh did energize Republicans, it’s shortsighted, I think, to ignore the effect it had on Democrats as well, and part of what’s frustrating to me, at least, about the conversation around impeachment is so much of it is framed among, “Well, what if the Republicans get energized? They’ll get angry.”

Yes, they will. That’s what happens in politics. That’s what happens when you attempt to change the field, but that doesn’t mean it’s not worthwhile, and I think Kavanaugh is actually a demonstration of the fact that if you do this, if you galvanize your supporters, and if you’re doing so in a favorable political context, you may come out ahead.

But I think Democrats are looking at the map, right? And they’re saying, “Inflaming people might not work for us, because of the way the Electoral College works, because of the way the Senate seats work, that we’re going to be inflaming people, but the people who are going to be excited about what we’re saying are on the coasts, or are in these places that are already safe.”

I just don’t think that’s the case. You can attribute Hillary Clinton’s losses in Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and Michigan solely to depressed turnout among African Americans.

These critical Electoral College states, again, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Michigan, Florida, states teetering on the edge like North Carolina and Arizona, states that maybe are a couple cycles from becoming truly contested states like Georgia and Texas … all of these are places where there are many, many Democratic voters who were not energized in the 2016 election, and so the idea that you will energize them by not drawing the sharpest possible contrast you can with the president, it just seems insane to me.

What it seems like is having reasoned oneself into this ultra-savvy position, where the thing that’s always most effective to do is not to fight, and that just doesn’t seem to track with anything that we’ve learned about American politics over the last 15 years.

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