Editor’s Note: Douglas Heye is the ex-deputy chief of staff to former House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, a GOP strategist, and a CNN political commentator. Follow him on Twitter @dougheye. The opinions expressed in this commentary are the author’s own. View more opinion on CNN.
Two weeks of impeachment inquiry hearings that featured witness after witness offering blistering criticism of Donald Trump and accusations that he requested that the Ukrainian government investigate a potential electoral rival should have been a political disaster for the president.
And yet, after what should have been one of worst weeks so far for this White House – and that’s saying something – impeachment is not a political slam dunk for Democrats and interest in it may already be waning. It might be time for Nancy Pelosi to look for an off-ramp.
Consider the polling on impeachment. According to the Real Clear Politics polling average 48% support impeachment and 46% oppose it. What’s more, CNN polling last week showed the hearings had no impact on how people viewed impeachment, with support remaining for removing Trump at 50% – exactly where it was in October.
In Congress, Democrats see everything as evidence of Trump’s guilt, while most Republicans joyfully wear blinders. These two different realities show that Speaker Pelosi’s initial concern over beginning impeachment proceedings was correct: there is simply no way an impeachment vote will be bipartisan.
If the House Intelligence Committee hearings could not convince Republican Rep. Will Hurd to support impeachment, it’s clear no Republican will do so, and, in fact, some swing district Democrats who have heard loudly from constituents opposed to impeachment may vote nay.
If impeachment proceedings go forward, Trump will almost certainly be acquitted. Do Democrats really want to give Trump that opportunity?
If not, Speaker Pelosi does have one reasonable off-ramp: a censure resolution.
Censuring President Trump, as the House has previously done with Presidents Andrew Jackson and James Buchanan, does not let him off the hook. A censure motion would be a serious rebuke of the President’s actions.
And provided Democrats keep the resolutions focused on specific wrongdoing as investigated by Congress – as opposed to a laundry list of policy differences – such admonishment could be bipartisan; unlike impeachment, censure gives cover for those Republicans who have been critical of Trump’s call with Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky but will not support impeachment to otherwise openly criticize him.
Democrats may well retort that, “If this behavior does not rise to the level of impeachment, what does?” Point taken. However, they’d be wise to remember impeachment is not a legal process, it is a political one. And if Democrats are thinking about the politics of 2020 they should remember how Trump went about setting the debate following the release of the Mueller Report, claiming vindication where it did not exist and defining the report’s findings for the public.
They should recall, too, what happened after President Bill Clinton’s 1999 Senate acquittal. “Saturday Night Live” aired a parody of his subdued victory speech in the Rose Garden. “I… am… bulletproof!” Instead of a comedian channeling Bill Clinton, however, imagine a very real Donald Trump, now in an election year. The Senate ruling would be no mere acquittal, but the “Greatest Exoneration in History.”
What’s more, the mere act of attempting to impeach Trump might tear our nation apart.
America is in a tender place. So often, those across the political spectrum no longer speak to each other and no longer like each other because we they no longer trust each other. Hardly a day goes by without a story about how America is more divided than ever. So much so, that “how-to avoid having politics ruin your holiday” guides have been made.
If we think we’re at a point where the country could not become more divided and the very fabric of the country is fraying, impeachment would surely test that theory.
A censure motion would not satisfy all sides. But it could be the de-escalation – albeit a temporary one – the country needs.