Just Keep Debating Impeachment

Argue well and for good reasons. The public will come around.

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Editor’s note

Today’s Editorial Board is a little late.

At my real job, I was in a meeting that ran long.

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Many thanks! —JS


You may have noticed (how you could not?) that the debate over impeachment is rising in pitch. There is an appreciable difference in discourse between 2016, when uttering the I-word risked one’s reputation, and today, when impeachment is de rigueur.

This fact, in and of itself, is more significant than participants in the debate seem to realize. Indeed, the passel of participants in the impeachment debate seem to believe that winning their arguments is vital. But winning their arguments isn’t vital. What’s vital is having these arguments at all, how we are having them, and why we must.

That the impeachment debate has appreciably risen in pitch is reason to believe the public will engage more critically over time, perhaps sooner than we think. The more the public engages more critically, the more fluid public opinion will be. And in fact, a new CNN poll shows support for impeachment rising four points over a month.


That the debate has risen in volume over time suggests where we’ve been and where we’re going.


Most people don’t like impeachment, because most people don’t want the Congress to do what the American people are supposed to do. If the president must be removed before an election, then he must be removed for a good reason. Provide the public with good reason and you move public opinion. Move public opinion and you win no matter how bedazzling one’s arguments are. How do we achieve such an outcome?

First, by arguing like hell that Donald Trump should be impeached.

This is not to say legal arguments in a court of law aren’t important. It’s to say they have a place in the general scheme, which is what normal people are attuned to. By “normal,” I mean people who do not spend their time arguing about law, precedent, and judicial reasoning. Normal people do not know, or care to know, about the technical aspects of the impeachment debate. What they do know, to the extent that they care, is that lawyers are making their cases for and against the president’s invocation of executive privilege in order to obstruct congressional oversight. They know a judge is listening, and that a judge’s ruling is part of a bigger debate, a debate that is damaging to the president by dint of the debate taking place at all.

Again, participants in the debate over impeachment are not fully appreciating this fact. With Trump’s approval rating being 41 percent more or less since February, it’d seem the electorate is at least open to the idea of impeachment even it opposes it in the abstract. This was not the case when George W. Bush was president. Bush was a popular “war president,” and as such, impeaching him was always a fringe issue. (Not even powerhouse attorney Ramsey Clark could change that. He got oodles of attention from the lefty press, but little but passing notice from mainstream news reporters.)

That we are debating impeachment at all, and that the debate has risen in volume over time, holding a steady presence in the Times and the Post, especially over the last six months or so—these facts tell us where we’ve been and in what direction we can go if we keep debating the question. But just debating the question isn’t enough.

How we debate it and why matter, too.

Normal people may not or will not understand technical legal arguments applicable in a court of law, but they do understand that there is a process in place—whether in a court or in the Congress—or, more importantly, they can be made with some effort to understand that there is a process already in place. And they can be made to understand why we must go through that process even if they don’t fully understand it.


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This, I think, is the next step in the evolution of the impeachment debate. Normal people see a furious national debate unfolding but do not understand how it’s going to play out or why it must. It’s this aspect, I think, that Nancy Pelosi was addressing when she told her House caucus during a private meeting that the public, even educated voters, do not understand that impeachment is a constitutionally ruled process.

The Daily Beast: “The Speaker, according to two sources with knowledge of the meeting, expressed concerns that the public still doesn’t understand how the process of impeachment would play out. She noted that in her time over the recess in California well educated voters didn’t seem to understand that impeachment proceedings would not necessarily result in Trump’s immediate ouster from office.”

I can imagine that even educated voters probably do not understand that impeaching a president is not the same as removing him, that impeachment is better understood as a kind of indictment, and that an indictment is tried in the Senate, just as if it were an ordinary criminal trial, with groups of people arguing for and against the president’s removal from office, and with the chief justice of the Supreme Court presiding. I can imagine that even educated voters probably do not understand that impeachment itself is a complicated process requiring fact-finding and multiple rounds of voting. It is not what many seem to believe it is: a snap decision made for the pure partisan hell of it.

There are plenty of arguments for and against impeaching Donald Trump. (I have made both.) But if we’re honest with ourselves, we can’t know how or whether impeaching him is going to hurt or help the Democratic Party in 2020.

What we do know is that the debate over impeachment has evolved over time, especially recently, and that it is has dogged Trump from the beginning. Achieving that outcome isn’t a question of winning any one argument. It’s a question of accumulated arguments that inform the public of how and why it must be done.

—John Stoehr


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