Democrats Should Not Base Impeachment Decisions on GOP Reactions

Here’s one of the latest conservative talking points around impeachment: if Democrats pursue impeachment for reasons that Republicans consider unfair, then Republicans will impeach the next Democratic president for trivialities. Or, arguing from a more disinterested non-partisan perspective, that impeachment will become as commonplace a partisan tactic as the filibuster. Among the more widely shared versions of this argument was the one made by Phillip Klein at the Washington Examiner:

If Trump gets impeached over what Republicans believe were nonexistent or minor misdeeds, then they are likely to want to jump on any scandal in a Democratic administration to pursue impeachment. And of course, should they take that path, Democrats will not soon forget.

Every president takes actions that, viewed through a certain lens, can be seen as impeachable. So it isn’t at all hard to imagine our politics evolving to the point in which it’s just a routine assumption that whenever an opposition party takes control of the House, they’ll impeach the sitting president — almost like the use of the filibuster has increased over time to the point which we assume all legislation will require 60 votes to pass.

It’s not so much that this is wrong as that it is irrelevant.

First, what we already know of Trump’s behavior alone puts him in an unprecedented category of presidential criminality. We have a president who is openly profiting from his office, including and especially from foreign powers, in violation of the emoluments clause; who openly lied about violating campaign finance laws in secretly paying off an adult film actress so as not to embarrass his campaign; who admitted to firing James Comey to take pressure off him in the Russia investigation in a cut-and-dried case of obstruction on national television; and who has now been caught abusing the classification system to hide records of calls with foreign governments in which he is alleged to have engaged in a variety of high crimes and misdemeanors for personal and partisan gain. And that’s just what we know of explicitly so far just from a corruption standpoint. It doesn’t touch on what might be lurking in his tax returns, or more policy-oriented issues like abuse of asylum seekers and potential violations of their human rights under international law. If you don’t impeach a president for this, there is no circumstance in which impeachment would be warranted. These high crimes and misdemeanors far outstrip those of Andrew Johnson or Richard Nixon, to say nothing of Bill Clinton.

Moreover, Democrats would be fools to base their own actions on potential retribution and recrimination from Republicans. The GOP has already shown itself willing to steal a Supreme Court justice and dozens of other federal justices to shut down the federal government to take away the healthcare of millions. The level of partisan gamesmanship and acrimony from the Republicans in the McConnell era is unprecedented. And, of course, it was Republicans who only two decades ago chose to impeach a Democratic president over lying about sex. The only reason they didn’t impeach Obama is that he ran a literally unimpeachable presidency in which the biggest scandals the GOP could concoct were wild misrepresentations on Solyndra and Benghazi.

If the current ideological incarnation of the Republican Party ever does regain control of the House of Representatives—and there are reasons to suspect that it may not—will it impeach the next Democratic president over trivialities? Probably. But the moral bankruptcy and tactical desperation of the Republican Party should not guide Democratic policy.

If there is one lesson to be learned from the Trump era, it is that one of America’s political parties, however imperfect, is acting at least somewhat responsibly to solve the country’s problems. The other is not. And the responsible party should not be taking its behavioral cues from its dissolute counterpart.

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David Atkins

David Atkins is a writer, activist and research professional living in Santa Barbara. He is a contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal and president of The Pollux Group, a qualitative research firm.