David A. Graham: The party-line impeachment
It’s worth dwelling on this for a moment: Roughly half the country not only disapproves of Trump’s job as president, but believes he ought to be removed from office, a sanction that has never been applied before. And that support comes at a time of (mostly) peace, with the economy (mostly) strong. There’s more support for impeaching Trump now than there was at the equivalent stage in the Watergate scandal—right after articles of impeachment were approved by the House Judiciary Committee. Rather than face impeachment, Nixon resigned. (Nixon, however, had far lower approval ratings than Trump does now.)
The lack of movement over the past few weeks, given the overwhelming evidence, is certainly disheartening. As Michael Tesler writes in The Washington Post, the most persuadable voters aren’t paying much attention to the impeachment. Most voters are likely following their party affiliation: “A long line of social science research shows that when political elites are this sharply divided, the public follows their lead. Partisan messaging is so powerful that Americans tend to adopt their party’s standpoint even when that position runs counter to science and objective facts.”
Most Republicans in both chambers have abdicated their responsibility on impeachment. There is a coherent case to be made, as in the impeachment of Bill Clinton, that the president had made serious errors, but that those errors didn’t merit the drastic sanction of impeachment. Some Republicans, especially in the Senate, have said that Trump acted inappropriately but shouldn’t be removed. Many others, like Senator Lindsey Graham, have instead repeatedly moved the goalposts, then thrown up their hands and just defended the president unconditionally.
Thus the paradox of impeachment politics: Supporting impeachment is anathema for Republicans. Supporting impeachment seems to be hurting vulnerable Democratic politicians, at least marginally. But support for impeachment remains remarkably strong, and also, Trump’s approval remains as stable as ever.
Even though Trump almost certainly won’t be removed, the breadth of support for impeachment, especially when compared with his approval ratings, could have important repercussions in the 2020 election. For roughly the entire Trump presidency, a small majority of Americans has disapproved of Trump, while a substantial minority has approved of his tenure. Yet despite this disapproval, most members of that majority did not support removing the president.
That changed in late September, as the Ukraine scandal metastasized and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi launched an impeachment inquiry. Suddenly, most of the disapprovers backed removal. In other words, the inquiry may not have changed many minds about Trump, but it did change minds about the appropriate remedy for his conduct in office. And while Trump and his allies deserve credit for muddying the waters in the weeks since, and for preventing large numbers of defections among his supporters, there haven’t been any substantial defections from those who support impeachment, either.