The politics of impeachment

I confess to being puzzled by the triumphalism expressed by some Trump supporters at the end of the House Intelligence Committee hearings on the president’s dealings with Ukraine. Sure, nothing happened in these hearings that will cause the Senate to remove Trump from office. But this process isn’t about removing Trump, it’s about injuring him politically.

In this regard, Trump supporters pointed to polls showing that the hearings did not move the needle in favor of removing the president. Some polls indicate a slight decline in sentiment for doing so.

However, heading into the Schiff committee hearings, polls showed that 45 to 50 percent of the public favored impeaching Trump. If one distributed the “undecideds” evenly, more than 50 percent supported impeachment. Polls that asked about “removal” as opposed to “impeachment” produced basically the same result.

If anything, then, the political burden was on Republicans to move the needle. They didn’t, not appreciably.

Much has been made of a Marquette University Law School poll of registered voters in Wisconsin that was conducted during the first week of the impeachment hearings. It found that 47 percent approve of Trump’s job performance and that, by a margin of 53-40, they oppose the impeachment and removal of Trump. These numbers were largely unchanged from October.

The poll was conducted before Gordon Sondland testified. Sondland’s testimony was favorable to the Democrats, but that doesn’t mean it moved the needle. I suspect it did not.

However, there is little reason to believe that public sentiment in Wisconsin about impeachment/removal differs vastly from sentiment in the U.S. at large. Wisconsin isn’t Alabama or California. It’s a 50-50 state.

Therefore, the Marquette Law School poll might be an outlier. It might also be the case that the main body of polls — the ones showing 45-50 percent support for impeachment — overstate public sentiment in favor of kicking Trump out of office without an election.

Suppose the correct figure is 45 percent, not far from the number one gets by evenly distributing undecided respondents in the Wisconsin survey. That’s a huge portion of America whose votes Trump presumably has little or no chance of winning.

Nor is it likely that Trump can win virtually all of the remaining 55 percent of the electorate. In this group there are those who believe, as I do, that Trump committed clear, but not impeachable, wrongdoing. In this subgroup, surely, there are some who believe, as I do not, that Trump should be defeated at the polls. Indeed, the law school poll of Wisconsin finds that, although 53 percent oppose impeachment, Trump’s approval rating is only 47 percent.

If just 10 percent of the 55 percent of the public that opposes or is undecided about impeaching Trump favors defeating him at the polls, then more than half of the electorate wants to defeat him.

The foregoing reads way too much into the impeachment polls. But these are the polls some Trump supporters cite as evidence that the Schiff hearings were a victory for the president.

I view the politics of Trump’s brief hold on aid to Ukraine as similar to politics of Hillary Clinton’s email scandal. No one voted for Clinton because she used a private server and later destroyed emails. More than a few people voted against her because of this, but it’s impossible to say how many.

Similarly, no one will vote for Trump because, for a short time, he withheld aid to an ally in order to promote his political interests. And hardly anyone who wasn’t already in Trump’s camp will vote for him because he has been impeached.

It’s quite possible, however, that more than a few people will vote against Trump because, for a time, he used aid to Ukraine as a means of promoting his own interests. In a very close election, these voters might make the difference.

That, at least, is what Democrats are hoping. It’s the main reason, I think, why the impeachment proceedings are taking place.