January 6th, 2018

Republicans in Congress face an existential crisis. I know that that was not the message David French meant to transmit in his blog post, but upon reflection, I think that is the 800 pound gorilla in Washington.

French, writing in Trump’s Impeachment Prospects Have Little to Do with the Law for National Review, explains:

[I]t’s time for some plain talk about impeachment. Any impeachment analysis will not ultimately turn on whether Trump violated the law. If we want to accurately analyze the prospects for impeachment, we have to understand that impeachment isn’t a legal proceeding. As my colleague Andrew McCarthy has explained in book-length detail, it’s a political process that’s influenced by legal arguments. The political branches of government make the decision. Members of the Congress—not the federal judiciary—determine if a president has committed “high crimes and misdemeanors” that require his removal from office.

Understanding this reality helps us understand the recent past. Why was Bill Clinton able to survive in 1998 in the face of overwhelming evidence that he committed perjury and obstructed justice? He was a popular president governing in a time of peace and prosperity. His average approval rating for his second term was a whopping 61 percent. House impeachment managers came forward with ample evidence of misconduct, but there was no chance that Democrat senators would vote to convict. Not only did the public (and much of the media) back the Democratic party in spite of the law, they arguably voted to punish Republicans for their impeachment efforts in the 1998 midterms.

What about Richard Nixon? As the Watergate scandal drip-dripped into the public square, overwhelming evidence of guilt accumulated, and the media thirsted for the president’s political blood, his approval rating plunged. He maintained a “loyal core” of 25 percent, but his disapproval spiked into the mid-sixties. Both men violated the law, but two different presidents operating in two different political environments achieved very different outcomes.

The lesson to take isn’t “unpopular presidents get impeached.” After all, George W. Bush hit dismal lows in his second term, but he never faced a realistic impeachment threat. The lesson instead is that the combination of credible claims of corruption or abuse of power, opposition-party control, and low public approval can drive a president out of office [Emphasis mine, JH]. Alter any one of these factors, and the president stays.

French’s second requirement—opposition-party control—is the keystone here and the reason that the 2018 congressional elections will be the most hotly contested (and expensive) in our nation’s history; if President Donald John Trump is still in office come September.

Exercising Section Four of the 25th Amendment, of course, is even further from any rule of law but may be how the Republican Party saves its bacon in November.

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