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A Substack newsletter by John Stoehr

Making sense of politics every day.

How Liberals Think About Impeachment

Pay no mind to conservative pundits on the outside looking in.

Now that the Democrats have taken the US House of Representatives, and will set their legislative agenda after the new Congress is seated in January, I suspect we’re going to hear much more about the prospect of impeaching Donald Trump.

The primary source of that speculation won’t be the Democrats, not party leaders and especially not Nancy Pelosi. The primary source is going to be conservative intellectuals who can’t, or won’t, do much to influence the Republican Party. They can, however, try influencing, to some degree, how the new House majority operates.

We saw this in Tuesday’s USA Today. Kurt Bardella warned Democratic leaders to avoid making the same mistake the Republicans made when they proclaimed to have found wrongdoing in the previous administration but didn’t, discrediting themselves.

The Democrats won’t do that. I don’t see any serious evidence suggesting they will. What I do see is conservative pundits on the outside looking in. They see a Democratic Party through a conservative lens, and are blind to how liberals function in the world.

Bardella won’t be alone. Over the coming weeks, I’d expect more from the likes of David Brooks, Bari Weiss and others at the Times. I’d imagine seeing more from Jennifer Rubin and Max Boot at the Post. Most arguments will be in good-faith, a sincere question of what’s right for the republic. But a lot won’t be. The goal will be protecting what little impact these pundits have in the public square, or it will be to degrade, and undermine, the Democrats’ advantage (you know, “centrism”) to preserve what little remains of a conservative ideology well-passed its expiration date.  

You could say that voters themselves demand impeachment. About three-quarters who voted for a Democratic candidate said they favored it, exit polls found. This is one of five reasons impeachment may be coming whether Democratic leaders want it, according to Bloomberg Opinion’s Ramesh Ponnuru, a conservative writer. He points to growing impatience if party leaders do not pursue impeachment, and to Democratic candidates for president eager to sell themselves as the purest of them all.

All of this misunderstands Democratic voters, the party and the liberal tradition.

Yes, we’d love to see Donald Trump removed from power. Who wouldn’t? But we also know the GOP has expanded its majority in the Senate. (Even if it had not, two-thirds of the chamber is required for removal, an impossibly high standard.) We should be taking those exit polls with a huge block of salt. People said they favored impeachment, but they likely meant they favored oversight, checks and balances, or even a scorched-earth investigation into a fabulously corrupt presidency.

Will Democratic voters get impatient if Nancy Pelosi avoids impeachment talk? Some will. Most won’t, though. Why? Not for the reasons you’d expect.

The conventional wisdom is that Democrats fear overreaching, as Republicans did in 1998 when they impeached President Bill Clinton and lost the midterms that year. Given that the Republicans won the presidency and kept the House in 2000, it’s debatable whether they really did overreach. That’s beside the point, though.

The point is liberals think differently. Conservatives are hierarchical and uniformly deferential to those in authority (unless they are Democrats). They will demand the impossible, like removing a duly elected president, and see failure of achieving that goal as a sign of tribal loyalty, which is all that matters to most conservatives.

Not so for liberals. Indeed, there is no such thing as “ideological purity,” because liberalism isn’t pure. It can’t be. The liberal tradition is built on tolerance of heterodox and sometimes opposing views. (Yes, there’s room for those who’d demand removing a duly elected president, but they are unlikely to become a majority.) On the rare occasion when liberals agree, they agree on methods, such as accountability and transparency, which can lead to common goals, such as integrity, justice, and trust.

Would a presidential candidate win over Democrats by calling for impeachment? Maybe. Probably not. Again, liberals don’t think that way. They are liberal. Even among voters who demand removing this awful president, the point isn’t removal. The point is stepping closer to the promise of the Declaration of Independence. That’s why it’s not enough for candidates to stand against something. (I have made the case, in the past, that it’s OK only to stand against Trump, but that’s a minority view.)

Consider last week’s midterms. Successful candidates made sure voters knew they stood for something, like health care, gun safety, higher wages, or whatever. If a Democratic candidate for the presidency does win over a majority of the Democratic base with an impeachment message, that message will subordinate to one aimed at serving the common good and creating a more just and equitable society for all.

Does this mean Nancy Pelosi won’t seek impeachment? Not at all. If the facts demand more investigations, and if investigations lead to more facts demonstrably showing this president committed high crimes and misdemeanors, and if a majority of the American people demand his removal, the Democrats will act. I have no doubt.

Why? Because that’s how liberals think.

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