If current generic congressional polling numbers hold, Republicans will lose their majority in the House of Representatives in the Nov. 6 midterm elections – and a Democratic majority in the House will then likely vote to impeach President Trump. Republicans must start doing more now to prevent this nightmare scenario from becoming a reality.
Of course, impeachment by the House doesn’t mean President Trump will be moving back to Trump Tower. As one of the leaders of the House impeachment of President Bill Clinton in 1998, I know from personal experience that the Senate is under no obligation to convict a president after the House votes to impeach.
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A two-thirds vote of the Senate – meaning 67 votes – is required to convict a president of impeachment charges and tell him, in effect: “You’re fired!”
Only 50 senators voted to convict President Clinton on one impeachment charges and 45 voted to convict him on another. Similarly, President Andrew Johnson was impeached by the House in 1868 but the Senate also failed to convict him.
But the high bar required for an impeachment conviction in the Senate shouldn’t prompt overconfidence by Republicans. It’s important for the GOP to step up the fight now to hold onto majorities in the House and Senate in November, and to prepare to fight the impeachment battle should Democrats become the majority party in the House and possibly the Senate as well.
Rather than scattering like rats leaving a sinking ship – as many Republican House members already have done by announcing they will not seek re-election – Republicans should be donning armor and girding for battle. So far, 40 GOP House members will not be seeking re-election in November, compared to only 20 Democrats
Too many Republicans appear hesitant to prepare for battle to save the Trump presidency before the dogs of war are unleashed.
Even if the midterm elections do not result in the “blue wave” for which Democrats pine, a bare majority of one Democratic House member will cost the GOP every committee chairmanship, the speakership, and control of the legislative agenda, in addition to making impeachment of President Trump more likely.
Up to now, the question of impeachment has resided on the ideological and financial fringes of the Democratic Party. The impeachment drive has been led by far-left Democrats like Rep. Maxine Waters of California and billionaire Tom Steyer, who has spent millions of dollars on pro-impeachment TV ads. But so far, this effort to overturn the 2016 presidential election has not picked up strong grassroots support.
All that will change on Nov. 7 if the previous day’s voting confirms a House and possibly a Senate majority win for the Democrats. Democrats now serving as ranking members on every House committee – including Maxine Waters on Financial Services – will begin immediately to set in motion plans to give President Trump an eviction notice from the Oval Office.
Hopefully, this scenario will not come to pass. But the first midterm election results for the party occupying the White House are almost always bad.
The worst thing Republicans could do with so much at stake is to pretend the problem of losing their majority and seeing the Trump presidency end does not exist or will magically disappear.
The smarter course, which actually may improve the chances that Democrats fail in their effort to regain control of the House, is to meet the challenge of potential impeachment head-on. But that requires at the start an understanding of what impeachment is – and is not.
Even though our Founding Fathers clearly understood the need for a mechanism by which to remove a president from office before his term expires, the guidance they provided beyond the mechanics of such a move are slim.
Alexander Hamilton, one of the two principal authors of the Federalist Papers, described the impeachment process in his Essay No. 65 in broad-brush strokes as dealing with presidential “misconduct” that violated the “public trust” and was “political” nature. But he made clear that impeachment was not to be used by Congress to remove a president simply because it disagreed with the president politically.
A Democratic majority in the House would reject Hamilton’s wise counsel. Instead, Democrats would follow Steyer’s example and not bother with any historical or reasoned analysis of what constitutes a legitimate impeachment. They would concoct whatever it takes to justify President Trump’s removal.
Back in 1997, when I first called for an inquiry of impeachment regarding President Clinton, my action was based on evidence that Clinton had violated federal laws. Even though the actual articles of impeachment that passed the House in December 1998 were based on matters unknown to me in 1997, the fact remains that it was violations of federal law – perjury and obstruction of justice – and not personal behavior or political disagreements that formed the predicate for President Clinton’s impeachment.
This distinction between violations of law and differences of policy is critically important. It’s based on sound legal and historical analysis, and must be articulated repeatedly. If impeachment were a proceeding in a court of law, Democratic moves to impeach President Trump would have no legal ground to stand on, at least based on what we know so far.
But impeachment is not a neat and tidy legal proceeding governed by carefully crafted statutes and learned court opinions. A Democratic majority controlling the House would have no trouble claiming that some amorphous connection between Trump and someone with a Russian-sounding name – or a presidential tweet that criticized a Justice Department lawyer – satisfied the criteria for “high crimes and misdemeanors” justifying impeachment.
The impeachment game is already well underway, regardless of whether the Republican leadership cares to acknowledge the fact. And if the GOP refuses to suit up and take to the field now, the final score becomes distressingly predictable and unpleasant.
Perhaps the strangest aspect to this, however, is that the Republican leadership does not even seem to recognize who their opponent is. As noted by veteran conservative writer Richard Viguerie late last month in his flagship online newspaper, Conservative HQ, House GOP leaders cling to the absurd belief that it is conservatives who are causing the party’s poll numbers to dip.
If the GOP leadership really believes its chances to retain control of the House rise or fall based not on how vigorously it fights Democrats and that party’s agenda – but on whether it can rein in conservatives within the GOP – it will doom Republicans to significant losses in November and dramatically increase the chances that President Trump will be impeached.
If, on the other hand, Republicans focus on drawing clear and actual distinctions between themselves and those who seek to wrest the House majority from them, the dynamics change dramatically in their favor. Such a strategy – given the will to pursue it – is relatively simple, even in the context of an opposition party clearly intent on impeaching the Republican president.
First of all, the GOP should reject the oft-quoted but largely misunderstood notion, attributed to former Speaker Tip O’Neill, D-Mass., that “all politics is local.”
Trump’s astonishing 2016 victory had nothing to do with “local” politics. Neither did Ronald Reagan’s in 1980. The tsunami that swept four decades of Democratic control out of the House in 1994 also had little to do with “local” issues; it had everything to do with broad, national issues like gun control and tax reform. History is fairly clear on this score – the Republicans win when the elections focus on national issues.
Even if Republican leaders refuse to learn from President Trump’s 2016 winning game plan, all they have to do is consider the issues on which the grassroots supports him now. Trump’s agenda is a national agenda; it presents a clear and distinct break with that of the Democratic Party.
The president favors true immigration reform – Democrats don’t. The president supports freeing businesses from strangling regulations that hamper the market – Democrats don’t. The president supports local control of schools – Democrats don’t. And the president wants you to pay less in taxes – the Democrats want you to pay a lot more. There are plenty of other examples of differences between President Trump and Democrats.
These issues, and many others, are clear winners for Republicans in the House. They should be vocally advocated in both legislation as well as in political arenas.
Republicans need not fawn over every Trump tweet. But it would seem to be a no-brainer to support the president’s agenda openly, and to back him up in the House through legislative actions, spending bills reflective of that agenda, and strong opposition to Democratic moves trying to undo his regulatory reform.
If House Republicans do all this – while also drawing attention to the manner in which the Democrats are waving the impeachment flag wildly and in a manner clearly designed to overturn what Hillary Clinton lost for them two years ago – the Republicans may regain their fighting edge and maintain a majority that right now is slipping through their fingers.
Former Rep. Bob Barr was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives from Georgia from 1995 to 2003. He now practices law and heads Liberty Strategies, a consulting firm in Atlanta.