Nixon and Trump: The politics of Impeachment: Column

There has been a bevy of discussion recently about the “politics” of impeachment, and whether there is an appetite among the public for impeaching President Donald Trump and whether the current politics benefits or harms Democrats or Republicans in the midst of the moment we are in.

Let’s put aside the legal elements related to impeachment (others are more equipped than me on those elements), and compare the “politics” through a prism of the similarities and differences on Capitol Hill in the time of President Richard Nixon versus the current time of President Trump.

First, before impeachment hearings began in 1973, less than a fifth of voters supported impeachment. It was through the impeachment hearings, when key people testified and significant evidence against Nixon was presented, that his impeachment numbers rose. According to a Reuters/IPSOS poll conducted last week, 40% of voters support impeachment of President Trump, a number nearly twice as high as what existed for Nixon before the onset of hearings.

Second, prior to hearings in 1973, Nixon’s net positive job approval was approximately 5 points. His support had deteriorated in the first quarter of 1973 off the high that came in the aftermath of winning a landslide election in 1972, but before the hearings his approval was still a net positive. At this moment, when one looks at the averages of all the polls on Trump’s approval, he has a net negative of 12 points. Thus Trump’s net job approval is 17 points lower than where Nixon’s were prior to impeachment hearings.

Third, the partisan makeup of the House has a Democratic advantage of close to what the Democratic advantage was in the House in 1973. However, Democrats in 1973 had a sizable partisan advantage in the Senate, where conviction and removal following impeachment would need to take place. In the Senate today, Republicans have a partisan advantage, and this puts the odds of conviction even if the House impeaches at a much lower level than existed in 1973. Because of the GOP’s consistent behavior of backing and enabling President Trump, the politics as they exist today provide the president with a backstop, absent more revelatory information, that Nixon did not have in 1973.

Fourth, Fox News did not exist in 1973, and Nixon felt he had no television network consistently defending him and giving him cover. Fox News has given Trump a better communication defense vehicle than even Trump’s own White House. This provides an “information” machine which can undermine facts and ensure that nearly a third of America will see the world (and thus President Trump) through the lens of Fox News. It means it would take an overwhelming amount of clear and convincing evidence to crack this base Trump has and which is solidified by Fox News each day. And this also makes Republican leaders in Washington afraid to take on Trump, and thus might influence Republican primary voters in elections they may want to win.

Fifth, there was no internet-driven social media, which today allows an ecosystem for President Trump, the White House staff and Trump’s supporters to reassure each other in ways that makes facts difficult to penetrate. It also serves to embolden supporters to believe their own reality and to make them feel they aren’t alone and can be strong together in defense of the president.

The bottom line is the broad politics today is much more advantageous for Democrats if they head towards impeachment, but the practical application of that politics because of the composition of the Senate, and the existence of Fox News and social media, makes it more difficult to actually convict the president in the Senate or to crack Trump’s base by additional information being added to the mix.

My sense is that Speaker Pelosi is managing this process well, and understands that unless impeachment becomes a more bipartisan affair, the politics could blow back on Democrats in 2020. Pelosi’s strategy of playing this out step-by-step, having her committee chairs hold hearings to advance the effort to build various evidentiary cases which could highlight the president’s potentially obstructive actions, and holding off on impeachment for now is probably the most common sense political approach.

At some point in the not too distant future, Democratic leaders in Washington are going to have to make the decision of whether the president deserves impeachment, and they should know when they do, the politics for them is an asset more so than 1973, but also understand that the Senate is unlikely to convict.

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