In the weeks to come, we are going to be reading more and more speculation about President Donald Trump’s possible impeachment. Much of it will boil down to the observation that ultimately, impeachment is a political decision. Republicans hold the power in Congress. If they decide they’d rather have Mike Pence as president, they can surely cobble together enough to initiate impeachment proceedings against Trump. The persistent question will be: Are the benefits worth the costs to them?
To answer that question is to ask Republicans to confront some of the deeper problems within the party. Impeaching Trump could solve some problems congressional Republicans face, but it could make other ones worse. Ultimately, it will force the GOP to confront some internal party divisions that Trump’s election allowed the party to put off. Ironically, though, these very divisions probably make it more likely that Republicans will delay impeaching Trump, since doing so will require more coordination and consensus than the party seems capable of achieving.
What congressional Republicans could gain by impeaching Trump
Congressional Republicans have four big problems right now.
- They now have a very unpopular president in Donald Trump. This almost certainly portends big losses in the midterms, perhaps enough to flip the House.
- Trump’s ongoing mess of scandals is taking up all the oxygen in Washington, diminishing any fleeting chance of a successful legislative session with each day.
- The growing “impeach Trump” movement is energizing the Democratic base. If Democrats get to run a 2018 midterm election as a referendum on Trump, with the promise of impeaching him if they win control of the House, this helps them tremendously.
- Trump is a ticking time bomb who could actually do some real damage to the country or the world.
In theory, Republicans could solve these problems by impeaching Trump.
But that assumes he will go with only a minimal fight, that politics will return to business as usual after Trump, and that Pence will wind up being more popular than Trump.
All of these are big gambles.
What congressional Republicans could lose by impeaching Trump
For congressional Republicans, impeaching Trump has three major risks.
- The real possibility that Trump fights back, and hard. If confronted with impeachment from his own party, Trump might react like an angry bear and try to take as many people down with him as possible.
- That the fight over Trump’s impeachment splits the Republican Party. Trump still has his supporters, and many of them will stick with him. They share his critique of a corrupt Washington, and this impeachment will almost certainly prove his point. He tried to shake up Washington; “they” came for him with phony charges and stabbed him in the back. Since Democrats will almost certainly vote along with many Republicans to impeach Trump, this will be “proof” that Republican insiders colluded with Democrats (the enemy) to get rid of Trump. This will hurt Republicans’ chances going forward. The pro-Trump remnant may run third-party candidacies just to sink establishment Republicans. Or they may just become demoralized and stop voting altogether. A seething resentment and deep frustration powered Trump. Those feelings are still present in many places.
- That Trump’s impeachment spoils the Republican brand for at least a few elections to come, maybe even longer. To take him down will require a damning case against him, and perhaps implicate many Republicans. The GOP will be branded as the party of Trump, with all the stink of whatever comes out.
Weighing the costs and benefits of Impeachment
Now let’s compare the costs and benefits in four areas.
Damage to the party brand
The damage to the party brand question is a short-term/long-term calculus. Trump is clearly hurting the party brand as president in the short term. Impeaching him almost certainly does even more short-term harm to the party brand.
In 1974, after Richard Nixon’s resignation, Republicans lost 48 House seats and four Senate seats. But in 1980, Ronald Reagan won the White House, and Republicans won control of the Senate. The party had a new energy and a new force.
The sooner Republicans boot Trump, the sooner they can get on with attempting to rebuild the party brand. Of course, that logic may not appeal to the Republicans who will lose their seats in the 2018 and 2020 elections. Or Republicans who are convinced that if Democrats ever get back into power, it will be the end of the republic.
Getting back to legislating
Congressional Republicans initially hoped that Trump would get on board with the team and the GOP would pass a bunch of bills. Now that Trump is self-imploding, so much for that.
But to assume that impeaching Trump could end the distraction and let Republicans get back to legislating ignores three inconvenient facts.
The first is that congressional Republicans’ legislative problems are not really Trump’s fault. The party itself is internally divided, and does not have a clear vision of what policies it wants to enact. Different factions within the party have different vague ideas, but there is little consensus. And nobody in the party has the ability to unite and work out compromises among the competing instincts. As Paul Ryan noted, it’s easier to be an opposition party. Governing requires trade-offs.
The second issue is that without the 60-vote threshold in the Senate, Republicans are going to need at least some Democrats to enact any legislation. If the Republican Party brand is taking a hit from the Trump impeachment, why would Democrats cooperate at all in advance of the 2018 election, after which they will have more power?
The third issue is perhaps the most uncomfortable for congressional Republicans to confront: that many of their policy goals (cut taxes on the rich, repeal Obamacare, roll back entitlements) are deeply unpopular. Republicans might have been able to get away with these under the guise of Trump’s anti-establishment, faux-populist bluster. But with the Republican brand already receding in popularity, more Republican members will find themselves skittish in voting for unpopular policies.
Whither President Pence
Then there is the question of a President Pence. Mike Pence may be seen as a steadier hand than Trump, and far more attuned to the rhythms of Capitol Hill (he was formerly in the House leadership). But it’s hard to imagine him as the charismatic leader restoring the Republican Party to glory. He was relatively unpopular as governor of Indiana, where he took some extreme far-right stands on social issues. He’s hardly a visionary leader who could rebuild the GOP.
Pence may be slightly more popular than Trump. But if he ascended to president, he would also face the full fire of Democrats, who have for now targeted their energies at Trump. Pence would also face fire from whatever pro-Trump Republican remnant remains, who will surely view Pence as the establishment usurper. If Pence becomes president, his popularity will probably be even lower than Trump’s.
The Trump backlash
As for the extent of the Trump backlash, it’s hard to say how much he’ll try to take down all the furniture with him on the way out. Some of it depends on how overwhelming the evidence against him is. Some of it will depend on how exhausted Trump himself is. Some of it will depend on who’s with him in the bunker at the end. If it’s just him and Steve Bannon, Trump is probably more likely to go down swinging than he would be with Gary Cohn.
My hunch is that if he were impeached at this point, Trump would fight back, and that Bannon would be most likely to be with him at the end, egging him on to finally create the chaos he hoped to sow all along. But Trump may also just be so exhausted at the end of it that he gives up, resigns, begs a pardon, and collapses.
And if he does give up, the pro-Trump remnant will lack a leader, and probably be less of a threat than they would be if Trump wanted to keep fighting. Still, it’s possible that even if Trump gives up, some in the right-wing media will take up his cause, and view this as their casus belli for taking down the Republican establishment. After all, the 2016 Republican primary did reveal plenty of internal party resentment.
Will Republicans impeach Trump?
For congressional Republicans, these are uncertain calculations. Proceeding to impeachment has big risks, with limited and highly uncertain benefits. It seems more likely congressional Republicans will wait and see, and cling to the increasingly small hope that Trump will be exonerated, or that somehow the steady thrum of scandal abates and they can get on with whatever it was they thought they could accomplish.
But the political calculus will change as the facts change. Investigations will reveal more. The moment when impeachment becomes a reality is the moment that the majority of congressional Republicans look at the pile of evidence, and the media narratives surrounding that evidence, and can no longer credibly tell themselves that impeachment is not an inevitability.
Given the uncertain calculus behind impeaching Trump, and the need for a large number of congressional Republicans to all get on the same page to make impeachment successful, the case for impeachment will need to be incredibly compelling — on both political and evidentiary grounds.
And this may be the biggest reason impeachment is unlikely to happen immediately: Republicans have to mostly unify around it. And just as Trump benefited from internal party division in the presidential primary, internal party division may continue to keep him in office.
Either way, Republicans are in a terrible situation. Their president is unpopular, their legislative agenda is unpopular, and the party is divided internally. Impeaching Trump won’t solve any of these deeper problems. It might even make them worse. But at some point, congressional Republican need to face up to the issues. The only question is: Do they want to confront them sooner, or later?
Impeaching Trump would bring chaos on the party. But the chaos needs to happen at some point. The sooner the Republican Party confronts it, the sooner it can rebuild itself.