By David M. Greenwald
I keep seeing conservatives and Trumpists proclaiming that Nancy Pelosi lost again. And while I understand the desire to see these things in terms of wins and losses, I think it is largely the wrong way to approach it.
The problem with viewing this through the lens of win/loss is that the outcome here was never in real doubt. The only question was how many Republican Senators would break ranks—the answer turned out to be seven.
So if the ultimate goal here was not to remove him from office or really to prevent him from running again, what exactly was the goal? Here I think there was a multilevel game going on. Pelosi recognized that she had Republicans between a rock and a hard place and was not about to give up her advantage.
At the first and most basic level is accountability. If what Trump did really from November 4 up to January 6 is not impeachable, I don’t know what is. He repeatedly falsely yelled fire in a crowded theater by claiming massive electoral fraud, and then attempted to convince various legislators and officials to effectively overturn the election—ultimately getting his base so fired up they initiated a lynch mob that invaded the Capitol.
There is considerable question about whether he will face criminal charges, not just in Washington but also in Georgia, where he seemingly attempted to coerce officials into lawbreaking—and there is a criminal investigation underway in Fulton County.
Unlike the first impeachment, there was really no doubt here about what happened or what the president did. While I tend to think that Trump committed impeachable acts the first time with Ukrainian officials, I never felt like they had a true smoking gun.
I do find it interesting that some of the same Republicans who thought that President Clinton had committed acts that required his removal by committing perjury in a civil court testimony did not think this was impeachable or removable.
Be that as it may, the result here is actually quite impressive. The history of impeachments—we have now three presidents, impeached four times. Nixon’s was the only one that probably would have succeeded, but he resigned before it could. The others were surprisingly partisan campaigns, and the framers of the Constitution were wise to force the removal vote to be bipartisan (unless one party controlled two thirds of the Senate).
The fact that more members of the opposition party supported impeachment and removal I think is important. But so too was the 48-0 vote among Democratic Senators (plus Bernie Sanders and Angus King of Maine, the two Independents).
The party that was rarely united was exactly that, on the need to impeach and remove Trump. House Democrats voted 222-0 to impeach and Senate Democrats 48-0 to remove.
I wouldn’t have thought that possible.
The canary in the coal mine here—an appropriate analogy given where he is from—is Joe Manchin of West Virginia. He is the most conservative member of the Senate Democratic delegation. There have been times when there has been speculation that he would change to Republican. And yet he voted to remove.
In a statement he said, “Today I voted guilty on the articles of impeachment brought against former President Trump to hold him accountable for his seditious actions and words that threatened our democracy. It is time to move forward as one nation to focus on helping Americans suffering from the pandemic. Now more than ever, it is on each of us to seek unity over division and put partisanship aside for the good of our country.”
It doesn’t give us a lot to go on other than he was not shy to call the President’s actions “seditious” and see the threat they posed to “our democracy.”
So I think a good portion of the impeachment vote here is that, after what happened on January 6, many simply saw it as not only the right thing to do, but felt it would be irresponsible not to do so.
But like anything there is a second level to this game—there is political payoff. Or at least perceived political payoff. How much of a payoff is hard to tell in such a divided and polarized nation, where the number of actual swing voters is fairly low and competitive states and districts are just as low.
But, yeah, following a stronger than expected showing by the President on November 3, his actions since brought him to the lowest watermark of his presidency in terms of public approval—and while even at the end 70 to 80 percent of Republicans approved of him, that too was at a low point.
But I think that is precisely the point. Pelosi forced Republicans to make a calculation—is it better to stick with the President knowing you will have to face angry primary voters if you don’t, or to hold the President accountable for his actions?
In the end all but 17 Republicans in both chambers stuck with the President. We have already seen realignment occurring under Trump—really trends exacerbated with rural voters continuing to leave the Democrats and suburban voters leaving the Republicans.
The New York Times this week in an analysis of 25 states with available data by party registration found that 140,000 Republicans had quit their party versus 79,000 Democrats, almost a two to one ratio.
The Times concluded: “But the tumult at the Capitol, and the historic unpopularity of former President Donald J. Trump, have made for an intensely fluid period in American politics.”
How permanent will this be? We can perhaps look to Watergate where the 1974 elections brought huge surges of Democrats following a narrow Democratic Presidential victory in 1976. To illustrate the impact there, understand that between 1968 and 1988, Republicans won five of six elections, with four of those being electoral blowouts, not competitive at all.
But Watergate represented what was really a blip in Republican electoral strength that eventually saw them, by 1994, taking both houses of the legislature.
While you can argue that the Republicans ultimately turned on Nixon and would have held him accountable, here most Republicans did not. Will that have an impact on the voter’s assessment of the party?
The history of Trump and his hold on the Republicans is worth watching. Personally, watching Mitch McConnell was telling. He has tried to skirt that line—he supported Trump’s reelection, was willing to entertain the fraud claims, then eventually he said enough and condemned his actions, but ultimately voted to acquit—feigning technical grounds.
Say what you will about McConnell, he understands politics but also institutions and saw this as the best path forward for his party—protect the institution of the Senate and perhaps democracy, but he failed to ultimately hold the President accountable for his actions.
Pelosi up to this point forced Republicans to in effect go on the record. A key question is whether her gambit will work. That remains to be seen. The same forces that were at work before, remain at work now. Both parties are much more insulated from actual consequences now—the Republicans far more so than Democrats.
—David M. Greenwald reporting
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