Tucked in the middle of last week’s Arkansas 2nd Congressional District debate was a disagreement between two of the four candidates – about impeaching President Trump.
Asked in the debate sponsored by KATV and Talk Business & Politics about the Russia investigation and Congress’ role as a check and balancer, Gwen Combs said she favors impeachment. Paul Spencer said he “would not even entertain that thought right now without seeing some evidence.”
On this issue, Democrats should follow Spencer’s lead – for the country’s sake, and for their own.
First, let’s make sure we’re using the right terms. “Impeachment” doesn’t mean “kick him out of office.” It’s the equivalent of pressing charges and is a function of the House. A trial would follow in the Senate. The Constitution lists three justifications for removal: the obviously serious charges of treason and bribery, and the rather vague “other high crimes and misdemeanors.”
Impeachment requires a simple majority vote in the House, which means any president theoretically could be dragged through the proceedings whenever the other party controls that body. Removal requires a two-thirds vote in the Senate, a much higher bar. Still, add it all up, and 285 members of the House and Senate can overturn an election.
The Founding Fathers wanted Congress to have removal power but didn’t want it to be abused. No president has been removed. Presidents Andrew Johnson and Bill Clinton were impeached, but the Senate did not remove them. President Nixon resigned before being impeached.
Through the first almost two centuries of the nation’s existence, one president was impeached. And then two of the last eight have been or probably would have been.
That’s a trend we don’t want to accelerate unless removal is surely justified.
President Trump was elected in 2016 under the rules set forth by the Constitution. Sixty-three million Americans voted for him, out of 139 million votes cast in that year’s election. Some voted for him because they thought he was the lesser of two evils, but others because they believed he was the best choice ever.
Congress should be very hesitant to nullify those 63 million votes, lest impeachment become a national habit. The emphasis should be on the “high” in “high crimes and misdemeanors.” The country is already divided enough.
The Constitution includes many checks and balances that limit what any president can do, anyway. On a number of Trump’s campaign issues, he’s been frustrated by the system. There’s still no new “big, beautiful wall”; Congress didn’t fund it. There’s no travel ban for people from certain countries; the courts have stopped it so far. Obamacare wasn’t repealed, though Congress did weaken it. And now, we’re seven months from a midterm election, when history shows that Democrats will probably regain their House majority.
And that brings us to the second point of this column. If Democrats impeach Trump, they’ll be shooting themselves in the feet.
For eight years under the previous administration, Democrats held onto the White House but suffered big losses elsewhere at both the national and state levels. For Republicans, President Obama was the gift that kept on giving. Ask the Arkansas GOP.
Now Democrats have a chance to reverse those losses thanks to a polarizing president who motivates their base and moves persuadable voters to their side. They need to flip only 24 seats to regain the House. Making Trump a sympathetic figure while making themselves look like power grabbers would be awfully dumb politics. Besides, there’s no way two-thirds of the Senate would vote for removal.
According to the American Presidency Project, 21 midterm elections occurred from 1934 to 2016. The president’s party lost seats in the House in 18 of them, and in the Senate in 15. In Obama’s first midterm election, Democrats lost 63 House seats and six in the Senate.
One of the exceptions was 1998, when Republicans were about to impeach Clinton. A CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll in October that year found 55 percent of likely voters opposed to impeaching the president – granted, a president whose approval ratings were much higher than Trump’s. The next month, Democrats gained five House seats while the Senate balance stayed the same.
Democrats would do well to learn from that election. I’m not saying impeachment should never be an option, but it should be the last one. For so many reasons, it’s better to let 139 million Americans decide who is president, rather than 285 members of Congress.
Steve Brawner is a syndicated columnist in Arkansas. Email him at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter at @stevebrawner.