These days, I get lots of questions from friends, colleagues, and students about impeachment. Generally speaking, the questions reflect a basic misconception about impeachment: it is not primarily a judicial process but rather a political process. There are similarities – the accusers put together a case, investigate (including calling witnesses and gathering evidence), and then present the evidence to the grand jury (in this case, the House of Representatives). If an impeachment is obtained, the President is then tried in the Senate with the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court presiding and the Senate serving as the jury. Two-thirds of the Senators present must concur with the charges in order to convict. Obviously, politics plays a key role in the process.
And therein lies the reality that astonishes my interrogators. The facts of the case just don’t matter; it’s the politics of re-election that do matter. Freshman Democrats in the House from districts that voted for Donald Trump in 2016 putting their support behind impeachment are what convinced House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to change her position on impeachment. Given the makeup of the House and the fact that many on both sides of the aisle hold safe seats, impeachment itself seems a foregone conclusion. But what remains in question is conviction and removal from office. And that, too, is rooted in political calculations.
From the start of the Trump presidency to the present, there’s been a steady floor to Trump’s support. About thirty percent of the population, overwhelmingly Republican in affiliation, have remained loyal to Trump no matter what. At times, that number has risen as high as forty percent. What that means is that there is a solid Republican base that accepts just about anything Trump has done or might do. There are a number of reasons for this support (and that might well be another post), but let’s accept for argument’s sake that the Republican faithful are supporters, enthusiastic or unenthusiastic, of Trump. And that poses a problem for any incumbent Republican representative or senator for voting for impeachment or conviction. If they do, they risk a challenge from the right in the primaries and general election next year. Thus the strong support for Trump among Republican members of the House – they want to keep their offices. Note that the Republicans in the Senate have been far more noncommittal about the revelations and the process itself. While they don’t want to anger their base, they also need to maintain credibility with the Democratic and independent voters in their home states or risk losing their next election.
And that political reality goes a long way in explaining the somewhat incredulous nature of the news cycle these days. Even as serious allegations and confirming evidence emerge regarding the nature of President Trump’s requests of the Ukrainian government and others regarding corruption investigations of Hunter Biden, House Republicans steadfastly support Trump, even to the extent of mobbing secure facilities inside the Capitol itself. But the Senate stands by, offering mild disapproval or even stern “no comment.” Mitt Romney, Trump’s most vocal detractor among Republican senators, has little to fear regarding an electoral challenge. He doesn’t face reelection until 2024 and represents a constituency, Mormon Utah, that is decidedly less than supportive of Trump’s moral failings. Senator Romney doesn’t need to fear a primary challenge – or even a general election in decidedly red Utah. What remains to be seen is who among his Republican colleagues might join him. Some Republican senators represent purple states and might need to seem more bipartisan in an upcoming election. Others may well fear losing a GOP primary. If you want to understand impeachment, stop focusing on the facts of the case and start focusing on the politics. Only when supporting Trump’s antics begins to turn off the supporters of the incumbent Senators will we see much progress toward removal from office. Until then, the cascade of revelations won’t shift the Senate’s opinion much, no matter how outraged the public might seem to be.
David Snyder, Professor of History and Public Policy, Delaware Valley University