Nancy Pelosi town hall 5-23-2018
Pelosi: Impeachment is not a 'policy agenda'
02:14 - Source: CNN

Editor’s Note: Julian Zelizer is a history and public affairs professor at Princeton University, editor of “The Presidency of Barack Obama: A First Historical Assessment” and co-host of the “Politics & Polls” podcast. Follow him on Twitter: @julianzelizer. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own.

CNN  — 

According to a new CNN poll conducted by the SSRS, a stunning 42% of Americans believe that President Trump should be impeached and removed from office – close to the 43% who felt the same way about President Richard Nixon during the climactic months of Watergate in March of 1974. The percentage is far higher than the 29% who said in 1998 that they favored President Clinton being impeached.

Is it possible that impeachment might really be on the table?

The truth is that the odds of impeachment remain extremely low – barring Robert Mueller’s team revealing some kind of “smoking gun” evidence of impeachable activity by President Trump of the most extreme degree. Otherwise, despite the new polls, Trump will likely remain in office regardless of the outcome in the midterm elections – at least until January 2021.

Currently, impeachment is a pipe dream. Members of the Republican Congress have made it painfully clear that they have no interest in doing anything that seriously threatens the President. The political antennae on most representatives and senators signal to them that doing anything serious to challenge the President will come at an extremely high cost. The surprise primary defeat of Mark Sanford, who Trump called a “nasty guy,” added to these kinds of fears.

Trump’s support within the Republican electorate remains strong – in the same poll, 87% of Republicans and those who lean in the GOP’s direction were against impeachment. Despite all of his troubling decisions and rhetoric, Republicans keep registering that their support for Trump is not seriously wavering. Even some of his most controversial decisions, such as the separation of families trying to enter the United States, have much more solid support in red parts of the electorate.

House Republicans have not even been willing to conduct a serious investigation into the evidence of Russian interference in the 2016 campaign. With a strong economy to boot, the GOP is placing its bets on the incumbent.

Republicans are even hoping to use the threat of impeachment as a way to whip up their own base in the midterm elections. At a rally in Michigan in April, Trump warned that Democrats would impeach him if they took control of the House.

What if there’s a Democratic Congress?

But what if Democrats actually regain control of Congress in the midterm elections this coming November? There are some candidates running who are calling for impeachment and promising that the Democrats won’t be afraid to take this step if necessary. Despite Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi throwing cold water on the idea during a recent conversation with CNN’s Chris Cuomo, other Democrats are hoping that the situation might change dramatically should the midterms go well for them.

If there is a Democratic Congress in January 2019, however, the odds for impeachment will still be very low. Fresh with congressional power for the first time since 2014, many Democrats will be wary about investing their political energy in impeachment, just as most Democrats stepped away from that option in 1987.

During the Iran Contra scandal, the nation learned that high-ranking officials in Ronald Reagan’s administration had sold arms to Iran and used the proceeds to provide support to the Nicaraguan Contras despite a congressional ban on doing so.

Speaker of the House Jim Wright felt that Democrats were best served focusing on their policy agenda and taking advantage of the weakened state of the administration. Putting the nation through the traumatic process of impeachment, Wright concluded, would not serve voters or the Democrats.

When impeachment backfired

During the Clinton administration, the Republicans came to the opposite conclusion and chose the impeachment route in the Monica Lewinsky scandal. It backfired – with President Clinton’s approval ratings soaring.

Democrats have watched as President Trump has systematically attempted to discredit the Mueller investigation as a partisan “witch hunt” and won’t have trouble imagining him doing the same to a Democratic Congress.

Unless Robert Mueller offers a clear-cut case to remove Trump – one that would command the support of two-thirds of the Senate, which means some Republicans joining in a positive vote – Democrats would probably decide to concentrate on pushing their policy agenda. They would try to strengthen their party for the 2020 election and capitalize on having a damaged Republican President in office who could drag down his entire party.

While the possibility of a second Trump term will scare Democrats, the opportunity for a one-term presidency and major Democratic victory will surely excite many members of the party to use their two years building a winning coalition rather than being all about taking down Trump.

Many Democrats would also rightfully be concerned about unleashing the impeachment process in our destructive age of partisan polarization. There is a good reason that Congress historically had been so resistant toward using this mechanism, fearing that it would become a normalized tool of combat like the filibuster has been in recent decades – but potentially even worse because impeachment has the potential to overturn the results of an election.

Given the extreme nature of the current political moment, with false statements easily masquerading as truth and radical political voices gaining mainstream platforms in the Oval Office and on national television, Democrats will think hard about pulling the trigger for a process which could easily fail – or place a very conservative Mike Pence in the presidency.

They know that if the party goes through with this, Republicans will be clamoring to do the same to a Democratic president in the future. This does not mean that impeachment should always be off the table. But it should be a mechanism of last resort given how fragile our political institutions have become.

If you are a Democrat, the best way to check President Trump is to build the political pressure that is necessary for a muscular Congress to conduct oversight that checks the executive branch and, more importantly, to take the steps that are necessary to defeat him in 2020.

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    The best thing about our Constitution is that it put a process in place to allow voters to regularly change leaders who are not fit to serve. Better to use the electoral weapon, unless there is no other option, than to have a bitterly divided Congress start taking presidents out of power as a regular course of business.