A long time ago we had a president some people hated even more intensely than Donald Trump. His name was Abraham Lincoln. A century or more later we had another leader in the White House who contended for the most-hated title. His name was Richard Nixon. I’m surprised we haven’t developed a measure where we multiply the proportion of people who hate a president, times the intensity of their hate, to create an anti-approval rating. One problem with a rating like that: we don’t measure fear in our polls, surely a factor as weighty as hate if we want to measure strength of motivation to remove a president from office.
That, after all, lies at the crux of these measurements. You might call it the not-my-president rating. After the 1860 election, many citizens in southern states could not conceive Lincoln as their president, not because he was personally hateful, but because his party and his ideas threatened their way of life. They could not remove him from office, so from their standpoint, they had no choice but to secede. California considers secession now for the same reason.
In the 1970s, we had the usual partisan divide between Republicans and Democrats. A sharper divide existed between Nixon haters, and people who thought he was better than the alternatives. I was still an adolescent when he resigned in August 1974: nineteen years old. I was a Nixon hater. A couple of generations later, I don’t hate him any longer. I don’t think he was a good man, nor do I think our country benefited from his leadership, but I don’t hate him.
We talk and think about Nixon again, because we have a new president who stirs sentiments of fear and hate as no president has since Nixon.
We talk and think about Nixon again, because we have a new president who stirs sentiments of fear and hate as no president has since Nixon. Every president from Carter to Obama has had detractors. Among those detractors are people who we might call haters. The virulence of feeling against Trump exceeds the virulence of feeling against any of our leaders since Nixon resigned, and Trump has been in office just over one month.
In Nixon’s case, people who hated him just wanted him out of office. Watergate gave his opponents plenty of political ammunition, but the scandal lasted a long time: from June 17, 1972 until August 9, 1974. Somewhere during that period he was charged with taking illegal contributions from the dairy lobby. Impatient with the long and winding Watergate road to impeachment, I remember saying, “Just get him for the dairy contributions! Those were clearly illegal!” My exclamation showed I did not care how Nixon was removed from office. I just wanted him gone.
We see similar sentiments and motivations among Democrats since the November 8 election. The first idea they floated was to prevent Trump’s election in the electoral college. That effort was never going to work. A second idea has been to prosecute him under the Constitution’s Emoluments clause. That proposal has no more chance of success than efforts to remove Obama because he could not define his natal location to birthers’ satisfaction. Birthers couldn’t say exactly where he was born, but they were sure it wasn’t Hawaii! Similarly, we do not expect Trump to turn over his check register to people who want to check up on his emoluments.
The proposal with the strongest legs at the moment concerns Trump’s contacts with the Russians.
The proposal with the strongest legs at the moment concerns Trump’s contacts with the Russians. His enemies want Congress to investigate contacts between his campaign and the Russian government before his nomination, between his nomination and the election, between his election and the inauguration, and since the inauguration. That’s four substantial periods in all. Given all we have seen happen over the last eight months, Trump’s opponents figure something will turn up. Something in this case is something actionable, a lever that Trump’s opponents can use to remove him from office.
A congressional investigation, with the possibility of a special prosecutor later on, gives weight and momentum to such a lever before an investigation even starts. You know something is in the air when Watergate references start to pop up everywhere. Removal of Nixon over Watergate sets a precedent that motivates anti-Trump forces at this point. Nixon’s resignation in 1974, however, does not yield a valid precedent for this case at all. That is because impeachment is a political process, and anti-Trump forces do not have votes in Congress to remove the president.
Articles of impeachment require a majority in the House, and removal requires sixty-seven votes in the Senate. Democrats do not come close to those totals in either house of Congress. Thus the correct precedent for efforts to remove Trump is not Nixon in 1974, but Clinton in 1998-1999. In Clinton’s case, Republicans spent a year and more to develop a case against the president, a case they knew they would lose when impeachment articles went to the Senate for trial. The modern era of irreconcilable partisanship and enmity between the two parties began with Republicans’ vendetta against Clinton in the late 1990s.
I would say Democrats have a lot to lose. The most obvious prize they have to lose is the 2020 election.
Democrats can say we have nothing to lose here. Partisanship can’t get any worse. “At least we’ll have shown people that we tried our best to remove Trump,” Democrats might say, “and perhaps we can distract him from doing the harm he might do if he wields power unencumbered and undistracted.”
I would say Democrats have a lot to lose. The most obvious prize they have to lose is the 2020 election. They could spend enormous drive and resources on an obviously futile campaign to remove the president during his first term, and fail to bring anything valuable to the 2020 election campaign. They failed to bring anything valuable to the 2016 election campaign, and that was when they had backing from a president of their own party in the White House!
With the 2016 loss under their belts, what do you suppose they ought to do to prepare for their next heavyweight prizefight, this one against a proven pugilist who is now also an incumbent? Well, they have a lot of items on their to do list. Trying to impeach Trump is not one of them. Trying to impeach Trump testifies to disorientation, astonishment, and a total lack of effective, far-sighted leadership since November 8. Democrats lost the House in 2010, and the Senate in 2014 largely because their progressive vision failed to win voters’ support. They lost the White House in 2016 for a number of reasons, one of them that they fielded a weak candidate. What are they doing now to correct errors they made during the last eight years?
What Democrat of quality will even want to run for president in 2020 if the party does not begin to lead realistically now? Perhaps Bernie could give it another try. He’s the only Democrat who has even a shot at the man with orange hair.
Since 1920, only three incumbents have asked for eight years in office, and failed: Hoover, Carter, and Bush Sr. In each case, one could explain the loss with reference to special circumstances. Incumbents are difficult to defeat. Yet Democrats seem to be gearing up a hopeless campaign for Trump’s removal during his first term, a campaign that makes his election to a second term more likely. Do they honestly think they can persuade any Republicans in the House to vote with them to impeach their own party’s president? Of course not. Do they think they can score partisan points with their efforts? Not with independents, and not with many Democrats, either. The people who keep score in these matters – committed Democrats – are the same people who should have their minds focused on 2020.
The 2020 presidential campaign starts shortly after the 2018 midterm elections. How do you think Democrats will feel about their prospects in 2020, if in 2018 they fail to crack 220 seats in the House of Representatives? At present they hold only 194 seats: less than forty-five percent of the total. To do well in 2018 requires good leadership now. What Democrat of quality will even want to run for president in 2020 if the party does not begin to lead realistically now? Perhaps Bernie could give it another try. He’s the only Democrat who has even a shot at the man with orange hair.
Every organization has limited resources, just as people do. In running after every lever they can find to remove Donald Trump from office, Democrats waste their resources profligately. They need to regroup. They need to conserve scarce resources, build their strength beyond the west coast and the northeast, and most importantly sharpen their minds for the big prize fight in 2020. For three and a half months now, they have roared about their cage in astonishment, anger and fear, as they advocate and plot Trump’s removal. Yet they overlook every electoral map they see, splashed with with red states and red districts. It may be an impressive display of energy, but it does not help the party prepare for upcoming contests in 2018 and 2020.