The Wall Street Journal’s editors gave voice on Tuesday to the conventional Republican wisdom: Democrats are pressing ahead with the impeachment of former president Donald Trump, despite the obvious divisiveness it portends, because “their goal it so banish Mr. Trump from running for office again.” This is a miscalculation, the theory goes, because the trial is likely to result in “his acquittal and political revival.”
I’ve made the same argument . . . though I’ve come to believe the conclusion that Democrats are miscalculating is itself a miscalculation (and if you read on, the Journal’s editors ended up hedging their bets, too).
The line of thinking that Democrats are pointlessly, heedlessly pursuing Trump’s impeachment was also behind Tuesday’s futile Republican gambit to shut down the impeachment trial just as it got underway. Of the Senate’s 50 Republicans, 45 lined up behind Kentucky senator Rand Paul’s bid to dismiss the proceeding as unconstitutional on the ground that Trump has already left office and is therefore ineligible to be removed.
I’m sure you’ll be shocked to learn that Senator Paul’s objection was voted down because all 50 Democrats, having no doubt studied the jurisprudence just as deeply, found themselves deciding that the impeachment trial of a non-incumbent is valid. Just like the Republicans, they managed to conclude that constitutional law and their own political preference aligned perfectly. Funny how that happens.
In point of fact, the question — specifically, whether a former president, who is now a private citizen, may properly be impeached in order to trigger the Constitution’s disqualification penalty upon conviction — is a close and contested one. We’ve repeatedly demonstrated that at National Review. (See, e.g., today’s latest offering by Robert Delahunty and John Yoo on the originalist case against such a proceeding, as well as John Bolton’s similar conclusion; compare, e.g., this explication of the originalist case in favor by Dan McLaughlin. I’ve also written on the subject a number of times, going back to 2016.)
A number of Republican senators are, in fact, deep thinkers about the Constitution. They’ve undoubtedly reasoned their way to the “against” side of the question in good faith, as have many impressive scholars for whom Trump’s involvement is irrelevant. That said, it’s impossible to believe that all or even most of the 45 who joined the Paul objection would see it the same way if a former Democratic president were in the dock. Or, for that matter, that Democratic senators would not grab on to any plausible theory — and even some implausible ones — that would spare a Democratic former president.
The blunt fact of life here is that Trump, who is self-absorbed and vindictive, retains powerful influence over a bloc of voters. How attached to Trump that bloc will remain as time passes and new issues and political dynamics emerge is uncertain. I have always believed that, his claims to the contrary notwithstanding, the former president did not so much “create a movement” as co-opt the Tea Party’s anti-establishment streak. Many of those voters (not all, but many) will reattach to Republicans as the latter become more anti-establishment in opposition than they are when in the majority. For now, though, the Trump devotees are a significant factor in electoral politics — for Republicans who want to avoid primary challenges, keep their seats, and move up in the world.