With impeachment proceedings in full swing, the Democrats are doing their best to make the case for impeachment to the American people. Most Democrats now support impeachment, especially since the initial scandal around Trump’s phone call with the Ukrainian president has widened to involve other phone calls, whistleblowers, and administration officials. Thankfully, there is a lot for Democrats to sink their teeth into. It is certainly not the nothing-burger everyone on the left feared it might be during the first few days after Pelosi announced the impeachment proceedings. But there is still a lingering sense of dread that the Democrats will screw things up somehow.
That dread is not unfounded. For impeachment to be successful, Trump’s base must turn against him. The Democrats must unearth something so salacious that Republicans, in general, abandon him. The necessity of this is clear from the contrast between Clinton’s impeachment and Nixon’s resignation. In Nixon’s case, he resigned before the House could pass articles of impeachment in part because it was clear that he had lost support in the Senate as well, which meant they would likely remove him from office. Crucially, Nixon’s support in the Senate dropped off a cliff in part because his support across the country had plummeted after the Watergate scandal broke. And the Watergate scandal precipitated a drop in support across the country because of a weak economy. The point is this: Nixon was already on shaky ground when Watergate hit because of economic distress. The same was not true for Clinton. When the Republicans impeached Clinton, the economy was rockin’ and rollin’ from the 90’s economic boom. Life was good and the nation was happy. There simply wasn’t enough discontent for the Republicans to capitalize on. So while impeachment passed in the partisan House, Clinton still had his base of support in the Senate, which meant that he could stay in office.
The relationship between economic uncertainty and impeachment success should worry Democrats. There is an eery similarity between the Clinton impeachment and the Trump impeachment inquiry so far. The parties have simply reversed roles. Where the Democrats were unimpressed by Republican handwringing about Clinton’s transgressions, they are now the ones doing the handwringing (albeit for very different reasons). Similarly, while the Republicans were outraged at Clinton, they are entirely unphased by Democratic outrage today. The initial reaction on the right to the impeachment inquiry has been indignation and dismissiveness. Trump supporters still support him, and there are so far no indications that that will change any time soon. At this point, it is difficult to imagine what would turn his base against him short of Trump having a truely psychotic breakdown or suddenly reversing course and advocating Democratic policies. Even then, some of his supporters would likely hang on.
The current state of affairs was not unforeseen. Pelosi and many Democrats were reticent to begin impeachment proceedings because they understood that Republicans would not abandon the president without a clear reason for doing so, and the Mueller report did not provide that. But the connection between impeachment outcomes and the economy was perhaps not fully appreciated by Democrats before they jumped onto the impeachment bandwagon.
To understand why the economy matters, it would help to examine the four most likely ways that impeachment proceedings and the 2020 presidential election could play out. For the purposes of this examination, let’s assume that impeachment will pass in the House. That is a fairly reasonable assumption given that the Democrats control the House and a majority of representatives support the impeachment inquiry. Unless the inquiry fizzles out for some reason, the House will likely vote to impeach Trump based on the information that has already been uncovered. More allegations would only add to that likelihood.
Another point that should be clarified before we dive in is the very real possibility that Trump could run for president again even after the Senate removed him from office. Many Americans do not realize that removal from office does not automatically preclude a politician from holding office again in the future. In order for an impeached official to be barred from holding further political offices, the Senate must vote to bar them separately from the impeachment vote. Indeed, there is at least one Representative in the House who has been impeached and removed from office before. Representative Alcee Hastings of Florida was removed from his position as Federal district judge in 1989 for perjury and conspiring to solicit a bribe, but he has been representing a Florida district in the US House of Representatives since 1993. This means that, in the unlikely event that the Senate votes to remove Trump from office, they would have to vote again to prevent him from running in the 2020 elections.
With that out of the way, here are the 4 most likely outcomes of the impeachment proceedings and 2020 elections. Let’s examine each in turn in order to understand what would need to happen in order for each result to come to fruition:
Impeachment passes in the House, fails in the Senate, and Trump wins the election
Impeachment passes in the House, fails in the Senate, and Trump loses the election
Impeachment passes in the House, passes in the Senate, and Trump wins the election
Impeachment passes in the House, passes in the Senate, and Trump loses the election
The first two outcomes both presuppose that impeachment would fail in the Senate, which is likely given that Republicans currently control the Senate and show no signs of turning against Trump. Outcome 1 is the most probable of the two unless there is a minor recession or other economic trouble. Clinton would probably have also enjoyed outcome 1 had he been allowed to run for a 3rd term in 2000 because the economy was booming and his polling numbers were high. Since Trump is up against a similar situation economically and in the Senate, there is no reason to think this would not also be the outcome for him. Specifically, without help from an economic downturn, it is not at all clear that the Democrats would be able to rally strong enough numbers to counter Trump’s base of support in rust belt states. However, should economic troubles occur or should the Democrats choose a candidate that resonates well with the rust belt voters they lost during the 2016 election, outcome 2 would become more likely. To be clear, many things can sway an election, and there are sure to be many surprise developments that could tip the race either way. But the economy is historically most closely correlated with incumbent presidential success at the polls, and Trump’s economy is booming.
The last two outcomes are where things get interesting. Both presuppose that impeachment would pass in the Senate. Crucially, while Senate passage of the articles of impeachment would result in automatic removal from office, it would not prevent Trump from running again in 2020. The Senate would have to vote separately to ban him from holding public office again, as described above. Moreover, contrary to what one might expect, history shows that an impeachment vote in the Senate does not always guarantee that they will also vote to ban said politicians from office in the future. According to Austin Sarat, Professor of Jurisprudence and Political Science at Amherst College, “of the 17 historic impeachment proceedings brought against judges and other officials who rank lower than the president, 14 went to trial in the Senate and eight resulted in a guilty verdict. In only three of those cases did the Senate bar—or “disqualify”—those who were convicted from holding office in the future.”
If the Senate were to pass impeachment but fail to bar Trump from running for office again in 2020, outcome 3, in which Trump is removed from office but then wins the presidency again in 2020 would become a real possibility. The magnitude of the damage of such an event would be hard to imagine and could result in the collapse of the Democratic party. Electing an already convicted president to a second term would reveal deep systematic flaws in our democracy and rock our nation’s faith in our government. But unless an economic downturn, or a surprisingly electable democratic candidate, or an out-of-left-field event were to sway the 2020 presidential race in favor of the Democrats, outcome 4 would be unlikely.
The result of these considerations is the conclusion that impeachment will not necessarily hurt Trump’s 2020 election chances. He can still run for president and win if the Senate does not convict him, as Clinton likely would have done had he not already been in his second term when he was impeached. But even if the Senate does convict Trump, they would still have to hold a separate vote to bar him from running in the 2020 election. Therefore, it is entirely possible that Trump could be removed from office only to return to the presidency after winning the 2020 elections. What this all means is that Democrats must continue to focus on the 2020 election. They cannot count on impeachment to exorcise Trump from the presidency, not even if it were to succeed in the Senate. Winning the election is the only reliable way to remove Trump from office.