OPINION — Twenty years ago, after the impeachment of Bill Clinton and the departure of Speaker Newt Gingrich, I left my post as the speaker’s director of planning and opted to go into the business of survey research. My motivation wasn’t a great desire to enter the world of campaign politics. I was more policy animal than political consultant.
But I had learned a hard lesson during the months Republicans decided to impeach a sitting president. I learned that when either party tries to enact a major public policy initiative, which is what impeachment is, it takes more than partisan support and bravado to bring home the prize. It takes broad public support, a national consensus that the action, especially one as serious as overturning the results of an election, is truly in the best interests of the country.
With a country as divided as this one is today, Adam Schiff’s most important task in leading the Democrats’ impeachment investigation over the past two months was to build a strong, conclusive case against Donald Trump that would produce that kind of consensus impeachment requires.
The House Intelligence chairman failed when he opened his impeachment show with a monologue masquerading as a “parody” and he failed when he closed the curtain with a predictably emotional soliloquy designed to both bolster his image and boost party morale. Final report or not, by any objective measure, Schiff’s impeachment performance got his party precisely nowhere.
On Oct. 1, just days after Speaker Nancy Pelosi handed him the reins of the Democrats’ impeachment investigation, the Real Clear Politics average on the question of whether Trump should be impeached and removed from office was 48.3 percent “yes” and 43.7 percent “no.”
Now, two months and a series of closed-door depositions and one-sided hearings later, nearly the same numbers stand with 48.3 percent in favor and 45.8 opposed.
For all the partisan back-and-forth, for all the hours of third-hand testimony and despite Schiff’s penchant for the personal spotlight, he has accomplished virtually nothing but a 300-page report that half the country will likely reject as little more than a Democratic Party campaign document.
People remain, for all practical purposes, evenly divided on the issue of impeachment. That’s not what Pelosi and her leadership wanted or expected from the man who has been the face of Democratic efforts to rid the country of the president for the last three years.
It may be that the problem stems from the fact that the Democrats and the media don’t seem to understand how to generate consensus beyond their base. They view impeachment through the lens of political campaigns where the definition of success has always been 50 percent plus 1.
But when it comes to impeachment or any other major policy action, broad public support doesn’t mean 51-49 percent, or 53-40 percent. It means a clear, substantial majority coalition. However, the founders went further and required two-thirds of the Senate to convict a president through impeachment and remove him or her from office. A simple majority in the Senate or in the country for impeaching a president is simply not enough to move forward. To do otherwise risks the very democratic principles that Pelosi and Schiff claim underpin their decision to begin formal impeachment.
While Schiff deserves the lion’s share of the blame for the failure of his party to make its case for impeachment, the obsession of his party’s base with Trump did put him in the unenviable position of the boy who cried wolf. The “resistance” has been trying to get rid of this president for years, and plenty of folks can claim parental rights when it comes to origins of the impeachment movement against him.
It began before Trump even took the oath of office. In December after the election, Elizabeth Warren and several of her Senate colleagues introduced legislation to require presidents divest any assets that might prove to be a conflict of interest. “Failure to do so,” their statement said, would amount to “constitutional high crimes and misdemeanors.” If that isn’t a threat of impeachment, I don’t know what is and Trump hadn’t even crossed the threshold of the Oval Office.
Early in 2017, it was Jerry Nadler talking about impeachment. Then Maxine Waters, Brad Sherman, Al Green, the “squad,” and from there, Democrats and media pundits couldn’t call for the end of the Trump “regime” fast enough. They’ve claimed collusion with the Russians, violations of the Emoluments Clause, obstruction of justice, associating the presidency with neo-Nazis and finally — abuse of power, bribery, extortion and putting the nation’s security at risk.
But their constant claims of wrongdoing don’t seem to be moving the needle of public opinion. Polling numbers show that the electorate that was divided on Election Day 2016 remains just as divided today. By proffering one dubious charge after another, Democrats have moved almost no one. Rather, they seem to have frozen the debate in partisan terms with Democrats overwhelmingly in favor of impeachment and Republicans just as opposed.
That isn’t where Pelosi and company want to be. I suspect, like me, they remember the Clinton impeachment and its aftermath. According to Pew Research surveys, when Republicans went after Clinton, only about three in 10 Americans favored impeaching Clinton and his approval numbers were in the 60 percent plus range where they remained throughout the fall of 1998.
In December, after the House had impeached Clinton along party lines, his approval numbers reached 71 percent. According to Pew, “Only later in 1999, after Clinton had been acquitted, did retrospective support for impeaching him reach a high of 44 percent.”
Clinton’s numbers remained fairly stable throughout impeachment. Richard Nixon’s job approval, however, declined steadily and support for impeachment rose as more and more damaging revelations about his role in the Watergate scandal emerged and as the process became more bipartisan based on actual evidence.
But that is not how people see impeachment today — as a bipartisan effort driven by more than third-hand accounts of “presumed” wrongdoing. In a recent Winning the Issues survey, we asked people whether they believed this statement: “Democrats refuse to accept the outcome of the 2016 election, and they have been trying to impeach the president ever since.”
More people believed that statement than didn’t by a margin of 48 percent to 39 percent. In fact, we found 25 percent of Democrats actually agreed, with 19 percent of liberal and 32 percent of moderate Democrats believing the statement.
The fact that a quarter of Democrats are willing to admit their party has been on a mission to get rid of Trump since the election is damning indeed to an impeachment effort tarnished by divisive partisanship.
This doesn’t mean Trump can count on smooth sailing ahead. But as impeachment moves to the Republican-controlled Senate, if the substance of Schiff’s case couldn’t sway public opinion with a home field advantage, are Democrats likely to win the big away game?
Adam Schiff’s impeachment hearings got Democrats nowhere, and nowhere is nowhere to be.
David Winston is the president of The Winston Group and a longtime adviser to congressional Republicans. He previously served as the director of planning for Speaker Newt Gingrich. He advises Fortune 100 companies, foundations, and nonprofit organizations on strategic planning and public policy issues, and is an election analyst for CBS News.
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