ANALYSIS — As House Democrats move closer to impeaching President Donald Trump, I’m amazed by the collective certainty about how the storyline will play out. It’s assumed that history will repeat itself. But I can’t help but think of Luke Skywalker’s words of caution.
Up to this point, everyone is assuming that if Democrats pursue Trump’s impeachment, they risk a repeat of 1998, when House Republicans began impeachment proceedings against President Bill Clinton and Democrats subsequently gained five seats in the midterm elections.
“They say it’s a positive for me,” Trump told reporters Tuesday.
But as Skywalker warned Rey in “Star Wars: The Last Jedi”: “This is not going to go the way you think” — and it would be wrong to conclude that impeachment automatically turns into a winner for Trump and the GOP.
First of all, there is a small sample size when it comes to the political fallout of modern impeachment proceedings. History “could” repeat itself, but there’s not close to enough data to be certain that impeaching Trump will affect Democrats the same way it did Republicans 20 years ago.
Second, there’s arguably a major difference between the two situations. Clinton’s sins were largely personal (although Republicans impeached him for obstruction of justice and perjury for lying about his affair with an intern). Trump’s most recent alleged sins involve abuse of official power and soliciting foreign interference in an election. Moderate voters might see more legitimacy in a Democratic rebuke of Trump than the Republican crusade against Clinton.
Third, the perceived backlash against Republicans netted Democrats five House seats and resulted in no net change in the Senate. While the result was striking because the president’s party doesn’t historically gain seats in a midterm election, it wasn’t exactly a sea change. If Republicans gain five House seats as a result of Democrats impeaching Trump, they’d still be 14 seats short of a majority. Impeachment could help the president win reelection (which wasn’t an issue in 1998 since Clinton was already in his second term), according to the narrative. But that’s assuming this potential event fundamentally improves voters’ perception of Trump at a time when his approval ratings have been static for months.
Fourth, an impeachment vote forced by House Democrats could put swing-district Republicans in a bind by making them take a specific vote on the president’s actions. Depending on how far the impeachment process goes, GOP senators who represent competitive states could face a similar dilemma.
Finally, the 2020 elections are more than a year away. We’ll see if the president does something else (or something else is uncovered) to justify Democratic efforts on impeachment, how long the impeachment process takes, and if Democrats can simultaneously focus on other kitchen table issues.
At this point, it’s difficult to envision a scenario under which impeachment by the House — which Democrats could pass on their own because it requires only a simple majority — would lead to Trump’s ouster from office before 2021. Removal from office would require 67 senators to vote to convict him after a trial, and Democrats (and independents who caucus with them) hold only 47 Senate seats. And there’s no indication there are enough GOP senators willing to turn their back on Trump at this point.
Even with impeachment action from House Democrats, there’s a chance history could repeat itself. But it’s amazing how much the 1998 results have scared some Democrats off from acting up until now, and emboldened Republicans to almost encourage Democrats to pursue impeachment.
But no two situations or election cycles are alike, and it’s probably best to heed the words of an elder Skywalker.
Nathan L. Gonzales is an elections analyst with CQ Roll Call.