Eric Davis: Impeachment is likely a non-starter
Last week, Rep. Peter Welch held an open meeting in Montpelier to explain why he has decided to support the impeachment of President Trump. Welch said that Trump’s actions have put “the guardrails of our democracy under attack,” and that impeaching Trump is necessary to hold him accountable for those actions.
After Robert Mueller’s congressional testimony later in the week, some other House Democrats, most of them from solidly blue states, also came out in support of impeachment. However, the total number of House members in favor of starting impeachment proceedings currently stands at about 110, less than half of the 235-member House Democratic caucus. Mueller’s testimony is not likely to result in the number of impeachment supporters reaching 218, a majority of the House.
Most of the House members in favor of impeachment are those who, like Welch, represent securely Democratic districts. Support of impeachment is what many of these members’ constituents want. Coming out in favor of impeachment also helps protect these members against primary challenges from their left.
Public opinion at large takes another view of impeachment. Polls taken in late June and early July do not show overwhelming support for impeachment, outside of those who identify most strongly as Democrats. For example, 37 percent of those questioned in a Washington Post-ABC News poll wanted the House to begin impeachment proceedings, while 59 percent opposed impeaching Trump at this time.
Most of those supporting impeachment in this poll were Democrats, while about 60 percent of those calling themselves independents opposed impeachment. A poll taken late last week by the Post and ABC showed that Mueller’s testimony was more likely to reinforce voters’ already-held views on impeachment rather than to convert undecideds or independents to favoring impeachment.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi is doing all she can to slow-walk the calls for impeachment. For Pelosi, maintaining a Democratic majority in the House in the 2020 election is the most important objective. Of the 235 Democrats in the House, 31 represent districts that Trump won in 2016.
Pelosi is trying to protect these members of her caucus from having to cast an impeachment vote. If they vote no, they will alienate the most committed Democrats in their districts, whose financial and volunteer support they will need to be re-elected. If they vote yes, they will open themselves to further attack ads from Republicans, in a year in which they will already be targeted by the GOP.
Even in the unlikely event that the House were to pass an impeachment resolution on a party-line vote by a small majority of Democrats, there is almost no possibility that the Senate would vote by the constitutionally required two-thirds majority to convict Trump and remove him from office.
For one thing, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, a master of delay when he does not want to act, will do all he can to avoid bringing the matter to the Senate floor. Also, with the Republicans holding 53 out of 100 seats in the Senate, at least 20 GOP Senators — almost all of whom represent states that Trump won in the last election — would have to vote to convict Trump in order for him to be removed from office. If Trump were found not guilty in a Senate vote on impeachment, he would certainly tout that outcome as a reason why he should be re-elected.
So, for Pelosi and members of the House Democratic caucus outside of strongly Democratic districts, there is no political upside to moving forward on impeachment at this time. Smart House members like Peter Welch realize this, so much of what he has said about impeachment in local settings should be viewed as intended for consumption among core Democratic voters in Vermont rather than as an attempt to change the dynamic on impeachment among his House colleagues representing swing districts.
Eric L. Davis is professor emeritus of political science at Middlebury College.
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