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Playing Chutes and Ladders with impeachment

Plenty of risks ahead for over-zealous Democrats and skittish Republicans

As the House Intelligence panel, led by Rep. Adam B. Schiff, prepares to open impeachment hearings, there are plenty of risks ahead for over-zealous Democrats and skittish Republicans, Shapiro writes. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
As the House Intelligence panel, led by Rep. Adam B. Schiff, prepares to open impeachment hearings, there are plenty of risks ahead for over-zealous Democrats and skittish Republicans, Shapiro writes. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

OPINION — “With the president impeached — in effect, indicted — by the House, the frenzied trial for his conviction or his acquittal under the Articles of Impeachment began on March 5. … It was a trial to rank with all the great trials in history — Charles I before the High Court of Justice, Louis XVI before the French Convention, and Warren Hastings before the House of Lords.”

That overwrought description of the 1868 Senate impeachment trial of Andrew Johnson comes from John F. Kennedy’s “Profiles in Courage,” which won the 1957 Pulitzer Prize.

Reflecting the Southern-dominated historiography of the 1950s, the Kennedy book (actually mostly written by his aide Ted Sorensen) depicts as the villains the so-called Radical Republicans who wanted to guarantee full rights to the freed slaves in the South. Even JFK’s hero, Kansas Republican Sen. Edmund Ross, who voted against removing Johnson from office, may have been far more motivated by political patronage and a $150,000 slush fund than high-minded principle.

As the impeachment hearings of Donald Trump begin Wednesday, harking back to “Profiles in Courage” serves as a reminder that historical perspectives can shift from generation to generation.

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Forty-five years after Richard Nixon resigned, there are few doubters who argue that the ironclad evidence of obstruction of justice on the White House tapes should have been ignored. In fact, what seems near miraculous in hindsight is that Nixon clung to office for another year after the revelations from the Senate Watergate hearings drove his approval rating to just 31 percent in August 1973.

Two decades after Bill Clinton was impeached, the sad, sorry spectacle still seems like partisan overreach by Republicans who should have settled for a censure resolution. But history has also not been kind to the scorched-earth Democrats who brushed aside Clinton’s indefensible conduct as he preyed on an impressionable White House intern and then lied about it to the nation.

The current confident speculation that Trump will survive being removed from office on a near party-line vote in the Senate ignores the reality that nothing about Trump’s impeachment so far has followed a predictable script.

Remember that on Labor Day, the word “whistleblower” conjured up a basketball referee. Ukraine was an embattled country that had mostly faded from the headlines once Russia had swallowed Crimea. And Nancy Pelosi was being hailed for the adroit way that she tamped down the demands by left-wingers in her caucus for impeachment hearings.

Even a month ago, the smart money was that Trump would prevail because no one in the executive branch would cross him and dare to testify before the House Intelligence Committee. But the glib assumption that a Mafia-style code of silence would prevail collapsed with the courage of foreign service officers like ousted ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch.

When the Senate Watergate hearings began in 1973, not a single member of Congress and few Nixon administration officials knew about the existence of the White House taping system. Is anyone — on either side — truly confident that nothing else explosive will pop up during the Trump impeachment hearings?

For starters, there is John Bolton’s obsessive note-taking, a storyline about the fired national security adviser that might appeal to those who believe in the dictum: “Revenge is a dish best served cold.” Or Trump, on a whim, might release the transcript of his latest “perfect call” to Vladimir Putin.

Know your audience

But even if nothing changes, both the Democrats and Republicans will be playing a game of Chutes and Ladders in the weeks ahead. My own view is that the evidence so far against Trump warrants an impeachment inquiry, but that is not to gloss over the risks ahead for over-zealous Democrats.

The biggest challenge for the House Democrats is the irresistible urge to play to MSNBC viewers. Almost everyone in Congress has an ego and the best way to satisfy it is to act in a manner that will win cheers from your ideological soul mates.

That, though, is the worst possible strategy for the impeachment hearings.

What every Democrat on the Intelligence Committee should imagine is a working, college-educated woman in her 40s who lives in the Detroit or Milwaukee suburbs and is inclined to vote Republican on economic grounds. But she is also embarrassed that Trump is president and often turns off the TV set when he appears so her children won’t have the wrong role model.

This not-so-mythical voter should be the Democrats’ target audience at every moment of the impeachment inquiry.

Risk calculations

Republicans — especially those who are sticking with Trump out of cowardice rather than conviction — face a daunting set of calculations.

Surviving in politics requires unfailing instincts when it comes to risk assessment. In voting in lock-step fashion against launching the impeachment inquiry, House Republicans collectively concluded that the risks right now of enraging Trump supporters far outweighed the benefits of asserting their independence from the hard-to-defend conduct of the president.

But if there are further revelations undermining Trump’s already shaky position, Republicans may have to update their risk calculations. At some point, skittish senators on the ballot next year like Cory Gardner and Susan Collins will have to estimate what the risks of sticking with Trump to the bitter end will be.

When Kennedy ran for president in 1960, he was occasionally mocked — in a play off his book title — for displaying “too much profile, too little courage.” That line can also serve as a warning for every congressional Republican who puts his or her convictions in a blind trust to reflexively support Trump.

Walter Shapiro has covered the last 10 presidential campaigns. He is also a fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU and a lecturer in political science at Yale. Follow him on Twitter @MrWalterShapiro.

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