|T-shirt (apparently no longer available) by The Beehive.|
Now that the impeachment proceeding in House Judiciary has really taken off its mask at last—although there are people outside the committee (*cough* Steny Hoyer *cough*) continuing to deny it, and others (78-year-old freshman Donna Shalala) complaining that it's distracting from all the great work the House has done passing bills that Mitch McConnell will never allow the Senate to consider (you know, I'm a bit of a Shalala fan from 25 or so years ago when she was HHS secretary, but somebody needs to intervene to explain to her that your constituents don't get all that excited by bills that don't become law)—another possibility for how it could game itself out is occurring to me with more urgency, related to the fact that it's going on during a presidential election campaign, which has bothered me from the start.
What has bothered me being not so much that I object to it as that I don't know what it means: for example, how exactly does an incumbent president campaign during the impeachment process? This has never happened before, in the very short history of presidential impeachments.
There's a partly obvious answer, in that Trump will love telling the rallies about the victimization he's enduring from the Judiciary Committee, and they'll surely respond with perfervid passion, but is that really a good idea? Or will it attract more attention from the normal and not fully engaged to notice that he's accused of quite a lot of crimes, some of which he clearly committed?
Then there's the question of timing, which I can't even begin to answer, between the two very large stories: in the campaign, there are the Democratic primaries (we assume the Republican ones won't get so much attention, though I'm even wondering about that), and the conventions, and the D-vs.-R. debates, and the rhythm of all the ads; in the impeachment there are the hearings, the debate and passage of Articles of Impeachment, the turnover to the Senate for the trial, and the verdict. How do they line up against each other? What happens at the same time as what? Will the House be passing the Articles of Impeachment during the primary season, or could it happen at the same time as the Republican convention? Will McConnell allow, or refuse to allow, the trial of the president to take place before the convention, or in parallel with it, or during the debate season?
This is what has been really tormenting me. These two colossal events are bound to have an enormous effect on each other, and we can't predict what the effects will be, or in which direction they will flow. It's easy to imagine, if the prosecutors tell the story right, how the impeachment could have an effect on the campaign, but is that all? And what effect will the campaign have on the impeachment?
Generally speaking, we've been imagining an extremely limited set of possibilities for what impeachment can do. It can lead to the passage of Articles of Impeachment in the House followed by a Senate trial in which the president is exonerated, since the Republican power over the Senate won't permit anything else, and that's about it for that track. But the publicity could lead to the defeat of Trump, since the people would have a clearer idea than they have just now of what a criminal Trump is. Which has seemed a lot less of a sure thing.
What's striking me at the moment is that, if the timing of the House operations is just right, and the current schedule looks kind of like that's possible, the hearings and House vote should track with the primary season, and the publicity, following the agenda described by Joyce Vance in USA Today—
Nadler has said that he plans to focus on obstruction, corruption and abuse of power. The House is reviewing obstructive acts described in the Mueller report, payments of hush money to silence adult film actor Stormy Daniels about alleged marital infidelity on the eve of the election, Trump’s alleged use of the presidency to enrich himself, and his administration’s refusal to comply with congressional subpoenas—focuses on some of the easiest issues, climaxing with the Trump administration's obstruction of the impeachment inquiry itself, there is going to be a certain consternation within the part of the Republican party that has been gaslighting itself. Depending on how the primaries go, especially if turnout is discouraged and Weld or Sanford makes a surprisingly good showing—there could be a certain concern in the party that things are starting to go wrong. To take the most delightful hypotheses, if Weld were to win in New Hampshire or Sanford in South Carolina (a state of which he used to be governor, and where Republicans apparently still like him for some reason I cannot determine).
That's when, for example, Mitt Romney or Marco Rubio (both of whom, I am convinced, are interested in running for 2020 as much as for 2024) could make their moves—as Robert Kennedy entered the 1968 contest after Eugene McCarthy finished a too-close second to Lyndon Johnson in the New Hampshire primary. It wouldn't lead to Trump withdrawing, as Johnson withdrew in '68, but it could lead to real chaos in the GOP.
The impeachment inquiry doesn't have a chance of getting Trump convicted in Mitch McConnell's Senate, I'm saying, but it could, with the right timing, do extreme damage to Trump's re-election campaign. It could even force Republican operatives to start thinking about trying to replace their unruly candidate altogether, and a convention where things really go wrong for them, probably not as wildly as the Democrats of 1968, but also less predictably. And it could mess up everything they're interested in doing, including retaining control of the Senate. Or it might, assuming the most likely outcome, that the party sticks to Trump like glue no matter what, merely lead to the party's complete destruction.
In other words, I'm starting to think of impeachment as a politically interesting idea.