Who’s Afraid of Impeachment? On Presidential Investigation and a 2020 Backlash

Photograph Source: Kathy Drasky – CC BY 2.0

There has been quite a bit of prophesizing among pundits in the news media, on the right and elsewhere, and even among some on the left with which I’ve spoken, in which critics confidently maintain that impeachment is a “gift” to Trump, dividing the nation, but mobilizing and energizing Trump’s base, thereby handing the election to Trump. These claims are almost entirely based on fear and conjecture, not on actual evidence. If we look back to the limited history of this country’s use of impeachment against presidents in modern times, there is little evidence to draw from one way or another, and certainly no cases that are equivalent to this one, in terms of telling us how impeachment will impact an election that is so far into the future – an entire year from now.

Conceding the uncertainty associated with the inquiry against Trump, available evidence suggests there is little reason to be engaging in fearmongering on impeachment. Going back to the looming impeachment of Richard Nixon following the emergence of the Watergate scandal, we see no evidence that the removal strategy harmed Democrats. Republicans lost 49 seats in the House in 1974, while losing another 5 in the Senate. Gerald Ford’s reputation – as measured by his job approval rating – quickly nosedived following his pardon of Nixon, and Jimmy Carter won the 1976 election, defeating Ford, while Democrats gained a seat in the House of Representatives, while losing one seat in the Senate. In other words, there were no observable repercussions for the Democrats for forcing Nixon from office.

A second case worth examining is the 1998 impeachment of Bill Clinton. This is the most egregious use of impeachment against a sitting president in modern times, since it was used against Clinton after he lied about engaging in consensual sex with Monica Lewinsky. This was an extremely cynical example of impeachment, as a nakedly partisan political move, considering the figures in the Republican Party who led the impeachment – Newt Gingrich in the Senate and Bob Livingston in the House – were engaged in their own extra-marital affairs at the time, while hypocritically and sanctimoniously condemning Clinton for his infidelity. Even in this extreme case, there is little to no evidence of an electoral backlash against the Republicans. They lost only 5 seats in the House of Representatives in the 1998 midterms, and lost no seats in the Senate. Furthermore, Republicans won the presidential election in 2000, and the impeachment of Clinton may have played a significant role in that victory. It is well known that Democratic candidate Al Gore avoided joint appearances in public with Bill Clinton, for fear that his association with the President would harm his re-election chances. It is difficult to say for sure, since counterfactuals are impossible to prove, but Gore may well have carried the 2000 election if he had relied more heavily on the rhetorical skills of, and public support for a sitting president who was widely recognized to be a charismatic speaker, and whose popularity with the public grew throughout his second term due to an extended period of economic growth in the mid to late 1990s. Whatever one thinks of Bill Clinton and his racist, classist, neoliberal politics, Gore’s shunning his help in 2000 was probably a big tactical mistake, especially for a Democratic presidential candidate (Gore) who had as much charm as a rusty doorknob.

The best available data that allows us to predict what may come of Trump’s impeachment inquiry is Trump’s impeachment itself. And the available evidence gives us little indication that impeachment is going to harm the Democrats, at least at this point in time. Available polling data from late September finds that American voters are equally split regarding impeachment, with 43 percent supportive and 43 percent opposed. Furthermore, support for impeachment has grown by 7 percentage points from a week earlier. There is little in this data to suggest that impeachment is going to galvanize a mass electoral turnout in favor of the Democrats. On the other hand, there’s also nothing here to suggest that it will hurt the Democrats, and if support for impeachment continues to grow among voters, it may increase Democrats’ perception that impeachment will help their electoral chances next year.

Finally, there is the matter of Democratic strategizing over impeachment, and the concerns that a failure to proceed with an impeachment inquiry will anger and alienate the Democratic base. The reality of the matter is that the Democrats are up against the wall regarding impeachment. The alternative to beginning an impeachment inquiry is empowering Trump to continue manufacturing a pseudo scandal involving Democratic Presidential front runner Joe Biden and his son, Hunter Biden, regarding the father’s alleged push to fire a Ukrainian prosecutor who took legal action against a Ukrainian gas company that was employing Biden’s son. But Trump and other critics have presented no evidence whatsoever that the firing of Ukraine’s prosecutor was motivated by an effort to shield Biden’s son’s company from punishment. Trump’s claims regarding the firing are heavily conspiratorial, in light of the lack of evidence presented, and his claims would likely have continued to gain traction without the initiation of an impeachment inquiry. Impeachment is focusing public attention on Trump’s own actions with regard to pushing Ukraine’s government to provide dirt on Biden, which Trump sought to use to his advantage in the 2020 election. Allowing Trump to create a pseudo scandal moving into 2020 would be a foolish move for the Democrats. This point should be clear when considering the harm that Hillary Clinton’s own pseudo “email scandal” appears to have had on her electoral prospects in 2016.

The FBI found no evidence that Clinton had endangered national security or committed criminal acts by using a private server in some of her communications as head of the State Department under Obama. And yet this manufactured scandal – promoted by Trump and his supporters – may have significantly harmed Clinton’s support from voters in the days before the election. In the case of the Biden “scandal,” it seems clear that Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi is proactively moving to diffuse any negative effects that could result from Trump’s quest to derail Biden’s candidacy. The alternative to taking action is doing nothing, and allowing the Democratic Party to continue to be a punching bag for a president who has shown he will shamelessly use his powers as president to coerce foreign leaders, in pursuit of political dirt against his electoral opponents.

Two key points emerge here. First, Democrats have realized that there is a real risk in sitting by and allowing themselves to be assaulted by Trump, while doing little to fight back. The Democratic base wants a party that will fight back against this president’s authoritarian antics and bullying. Doing nothing reinforces the idea that the Democrats do not have spines, and that they will not engage in an active campaign to defeat Trump in 2020. Pelosi has shown via impeachment inquiry that the neoliberal wing of the party, while happy to roll over for corporate interests, will not be willingly run over by Trump’s blatant partisan electioneering.

Second, the enactment of the impeachment inquiry demonstrates that Democrats recognize the significant power inherent in setting the political agenda for how the media and Americans discuss electoral politics. Notice that, with the onset of an impeachment inquiry, the discussion in the mass media is not whether Biden engaged in a corrupt act by pushing for the firing of a Ukrainian prosecutor. The story now is whether Trump violated basic ethical standards by seeking to bribe and coerce a foreign leader, and whether he should be impeached for his actions. The discussion is now shifting from Biden to Trump, and the question at hand is not if Trump is likely to be impeached, but when, and whether or not he will be removed from office.

Numerous progressives I’ve spoken with, in addition to Trump supporters, claim this impeachment inquiry is entirely theatrical, since there is “no chance” of a Republican Senate removing this president. But there is simply no way to know for sure how the Senate will behave if confronted with a vote over presidential removal. Republican Senator Jeff Flake estimates that as many as 35 Senate Republicans would vote to remove Trump, if the vote is done in secret, to avoid reprisal from Trump voters. Thirty-five Republican Senators is more than enough to remove Trump, when combined with a unified Democratic vote against Trump. So the reality of the matter is that those pushing the “impeachment is doomed to fail” line are speculating on what may happen in an unknowable future – but one in which Trump’s removal is possible, even if not probable at this moment.

There are, of course, dangers that impeachment brings. One is that the 2020 election becomes merely a mandate on Trump, rather than about establishing a progressive vision for policy change. I have no doubt that Biden and Pelosi would love to make the 2020 election into nothing more than a mandate on Trump, which would allow them to divert public attention from the growing support within the Democratic Party for the progressive, New Deal-style reforms promoted by Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren. These policies are strongly opposed by neoliberal establishment types like Pelosi and Biden, so there is a real risk in allowing the impeachment agenda to hijack political discourse in the run-up to 2020.

But the dangers accompanying impeachment simply mean that it needs to be pursued as soon as possible, and that the matter – whether Democrats succeed or fail in removing Trump – needs to be settled well before election day 2020. I’ve seen no compelling evidence to suggest that impeachment, by itself, will produce a mass groundswell in 2020 to sweep the Democrats into power in the Senate, or win the White House. The party needs a candidate who inspires young Americans, swing voters, and disillusioned ex-voters who have flocked from the party over the years due to its elitist, neoliberal policies. And without a progressive campaign of the Sanders-Warren variety, there is little reason to think that the Democrats are going to prevail in 2020 over Trump.

None of this, however, means that Democrats should avoid impeachment. It simply means that Democratic voters need to be careful moving into the primary to avoid empowering Democratic insider candidates – of which Biden is the most extreme example – who seek to make 2020 about Trump’s corruption, rather than about the articulation of a progressive platform for change. The best way to avoid this scenario is to elect a progressive candidate to represent the Democratic Party in the 2020 election – one who will put policy reform, not impeachment, at the center of his or her electoral agenda.


Anthony DiMaggio is Associate Professor of Political Science at Lehigh University. He is the author of Rising Fascism in America: It Can Happen Here (Routledge, 2022), in addition to Rebellion in America (Routledge, 2020), and Unequal America (Routledge, 2021). He can be reached at: anthonydimaggio612@gmail.com. A digital copy of Rebellion in America can be read for free here.