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Opinion: The Perils of Impeachment

Democratic refrain may seem like shrill partisan rhetoric

Talk of impeachment seems as far from voter concerns as President Donald Trump’s TV viewing habits, Winston writes. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Talk of impeachment seems as far from voter concerns as President Donald Trump’s TV viewing habits, Winston writes. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Washington is beginning to resemble a political version of TMZ — sensational headlines and “breaking news” alerts, blockbuster behind-the-scenes books that tell all or nothing depending on your point of view, and messy political divorces that rival Hollywood for backstabbing and jaw-dropping tweet wars.

On-air political interviews turn into verbal Ultimate Fighting Championship matches, and the media’s race to scoop the competition has further damaged the credibility of a profession already held in low esteem. This week kicked off with questions like “Will Oprah run?” and “Is Trump watching too much TV?”

Despite the many difficult issues facing the country, the media and Washington’s pundit class stay focused on something most of America tunes out: partisan gamesmanship. By “most,” I mean the average voters out there who don’t belong to the hyperventilating base of either party and who wait for Washington to implement the solutions they voted for.

Last weekend, Republican congressional leaders zeroed in on a 2018 legislative agenda to try to deliver those solutions, meeting with President Donald Trump and much of his Cabinet at Camp David to tackle the budget vote, DACA, infrastructure, military spending and welfare reform.

Meanwhile, other than DACA demands, Democrats have offered little. They continue down the Russia path to what they and much of the media believe is, inevitably, Trump’s impeachment for collusion or, if the Russia connection is a bust, pulling the 25th Amendment out of their hat.

Watch: What’s the 25th Amendment?

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Having lived through the Clinton impeachment as then-Speaker Newt Gingrich’s director of planning, I would warn Democrats, “Be careful what you wish for.”

Unrealized expectations

Republicans began 1998 with high hopes for a major pickup of seats in the House. The GOP had passed tax cuts, reformed welfare and balanced the budget for the first time since Neil Armstrong walked on the moon, with economic growth over 4 percent.

Looking at these accomplishments and the history of losses the party holding the presidency usually experiences in the second term, one could understand their optimism. Add to that the Clinton sexual misconduct scandal, and Republican leaders were convinced they would pick up 20 to 30 House seats and said so publicly.

In the months leading up to the election, Republicans ratcheted up their calls for Clinton’s investigation and impeachment and then made a structural error.

Rather than run on their remarkably positive record, their message to voters was, to paraphrase the ad campaign, “Don’t reward Bill Clinton for his bad behavior. Vote Republican.” I cautioned against a Clinton strategy at the time, seeing survey numbers that were less than determinative and, in fact, seemed to indicate eroding support for Republicans.

The GOP’s miscalculation on impeachment in 1998 cost them 5 seats and Gingrich the speakership. But I did learn a hard but good lesson as a young staffer. No opposition political party should undertake impeachment lightly or suggest the use of the 25th Amendment for partisan advantage as we’ve seen many Democrats do almost since Trump’s election.

In the ’90s, partisanship had devolved into hardball competition but had not reached the destructive level we see today. The “Resistance” may want to consider the radical notion that promoting ideas that connect with voters might be a more rational strategy for an opposition party, given voters’ negative attitude toward the direction of the country.

Despite better economic news, voters are still unhappy with the pace of change.

A new “Winning the Issues” survey in the field at the end of December found people still worried about the economy, jobs, health care and Social Security. And when it comes to how voters rank the importance of the Russia investigations, once again they put the issue dead last. Although Republicans can take heart in some positive movement on the recently enacted tax reform bill and their own brand, they still slightly trail the Democrats’ brand. However, both brands are negative.

Healthy skepticism?

Voters, whose mood may be improving, remain skeptical of both parties and this president. What they are saying is that this country is facing serious problems overseas and at home, especially at home. Until the Russia investigations show them something more than they’ve seen so far, Democratic calls for impeachment seem nothing more than shrill partisan rhetoric from a party that still doesn’t understand how it lost in 2016.

The Russia story may garner eyeballs and clicks because of its sensationalism, and people believe that the integrity of our elections is important. But they see much of the coverage and the investigations themselves as nothing but partisan game playing, much as voters saw the Clinton impeachment 20 years ago.

Democratic leaders Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi may be remembering 1998, as they have wisely tried to restrain their caucuses from hurtling down the risky path of impeachment, Schumer more successfully than Pelosi. But the Democratic chorus of activists screaming for impeachment or, these days, exercising the 25th Amendment, may well drown out the prudence of experience.

In 2006, when Republicans lost the House, John Boehner made no excuses. Instead, he said at the time he became minority leader that the No. 1 goal of House Republicans was earning back the trust of the American people. Over the next four years, Boehner didn’t go after President Barack Obama personally. He focused on one vitriol-free question, “Where are the jobs?”

Although my Democratic friends will vehemently disagree with me, it wasn’t a partisan-driven argument per se that would alienate independents. It was policy-based, and any president’s record is fair game, just as Trump’s will be. By strategically homing in on voters’ top concern, Republicans were able to win back the House by winning independents and the women’s vote.

At this point, talk of impeachment seems as far from voter concerns as Trump’s viewing habits. Time for more governing and less gamesmanship.

David Winston is the president of The Winston Group and a longtime adviser to congressional Republicans. He previously served as the director of planning for House Speaker Newt Gingrich. He advises Fortune 100 companies, foundations, and nonprofit organizations on strategic planning and public policy issues, and is an election analyst for CBS News.

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