The first lesson of politics is to be able to count.
- Lyndon Johnson
When you consider the impeachment of President Donald Trump, there are three sets of relevant numbers. They aren’t the dates of his phone call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, or the number of times that Trump urged Zelensky to work with Giuliani.
The first set of relevant figures are 50 percent and 48 percent. According to a Fox News poll on June 16, 2019, those were the poll numbers among registered voters for impeachment. Fifty for, forty-eight against.
Support in Washington for impeachment has grown since May 2017. That was the month of fervor surrounding Comey’s firing: for the first time since inauguration, a majority of respondents supported impeaching Trump: 48 for, 41 against. Those are the second set of figures.
And the third set speak for themselves:
Numbers don't lie, but they do hide. It is not always clear which figures are relevant, which can be ignored, and which are crucial. Polls do and will change: a Quinnipac poll last week noted A) that a majority of Republicans and Independents were against impeachment, and B) that a majority of Democrats and Independents think the Mueller Report didn't clear Trump of wrongdoing.
But the three sets I mentioned (50/48 in June, 48/41 in 2017, and the election polls) tell the story behind impeachment.
Right now, the White House is trying to fight the inquiry. They are arguing on the grounds of strict wording: that is, if the July 25th call between Trump and Zelensky does not include specific orders, then there can be no crime. To quote Slate, “This is the White House's talking point too, of course: no explicit quid pro quo, therefore nothing amiss.”
The White House is making a classic error, and that's before you even consider the added details (and the cover-up) that were revealed with the release of the whistleblower complaint. When Americans discuss impeachment, they treat it (understandably) as a legal narrative, or a story about rules and regulations.
But impeachment is a political process, not a legal one. This point must be driven home again and again. Because impeachment is a political process, it is subject to political considerations: How will this play to this audience? How will this effect the election? Does this smoking gun seem like a smoking gun? What do the numbers show? These are the data points that dictate the decisions and the timetables around impeachment. Trump's supporters are arguing about the exact wording of the call, and they are missing the point. Impeachment is a matter of politics, and politics is a matter of counting.
Other commenters have argued that the Trump Administration has engaged in behavior that seems far more illegal and brazen. This is a fair assessment, but it fails to take the political story in hand. As Gerald Ford said in 1970, when he was House Minority Leader, “An impeachable offense is whatever a majority of the House of Representatives considers it to be at a given moment in history.”
What about this given moment? In April 2017, the scholar Allan Lichtman published a book titled “The Case for Impeachment.” In his work, Lichtman predicted that Trump would be eventually impeached from the Presidency. His reasons for removal included:
complicity of conspiracy with foreign governments, crimes against humanity for the U.S. neglecting global warming, and violation of the Foreign Emoluments Clause of the constitution barring the president from taking personal monetary offerings from other governments.
Lichtman also comments on actions taken before Trump's presidency that could also be grounds for impeachment, including Fair Housing Act violations, the fiasco surrounding Trump University, and the Trump Foundation. But these arguments, convincing as they may be, are not the reasons the Democratic House Leadership has decided to move forward.
The Congressional Democrats have read the numbers, and have politically calculated the following: One, the President appears to be in a vulnerable election. His numbers are down far enough to where he can be threatened. Two, according to the polling data taken in 2017, there has been an apparent bedrock support for impeachment for almost two years. This support has not always been in the majority, but it has been constant. Three, there is a building consensus now, as the election year nears, to impeach.
When you add the electoral polling numbers with the 2019 numbers, a disinterested observer should consider the position of Republicans in the Senate. At present, given what we know of the Senate over the past two years, it is extremely unlikely the GOP would vote for any impeachment.
But we are dealing in the realm of numbers, which have a far greater deal of certainty than the personal inclinations of individual Senators. As the defense consultant Thomas Callaghan once wrote, “Quantity has a quality of its own.”
Here are the quantities behind political calculation. Currently, the Republicans have a six-seat majority in the Senate. In 2020, the Republicans will have to defend 23 seats. The Democrats will only have to guard 12 seats. Of that dozen, according to the New York Times, Doug Jones (D-AL) is “the only seriously endangered Democratic incumbent at the moment.” Senator Isaskon (R-GA) will retire in 2020, which may result in a Democrat. Additionally:
In contrast to 2018, Republicans otherwise will be almost entirely on defense in 2020 with Republican-held seats in Arizona, Colorado, Maine and North Carolina considered by both parties to be the top targets; seats in Iowa and elsewhere could move on to the list as the campaigns there develop.
Anyone can do the math. To impeach Trump before 2020, the Democrats would need 20 Republicans to vote with them. Given Trump's ties with his base, the chances of this happening are low. But holding Trump to account, and forcing the GOP to defend him, and turning out the Democratic base, are worth the gamble of impeachment. The worst case for Democrats is that impeachment could backfire. Trump could be reelected, and a Republican majority could ride in on his coattails. But that's not the way to bet.
The most likely outcome is that Trump will not be impeached (thanks to the Senate), but that he will be significantly damaged by impeachment, that the Democratic base will be pleased. Furthermore, the Senators forced to defend Trump will be put in a precarious position. The Times again:
Democrats say that it is Republican candidates who are caught in a squeeze, trapped between independent and suburban Republicans uncomfortable with Mr. Trump and base voters who will brook no dissent when it comes to the president. Mr. Schumer noted that the same crosscurrents helped Democrats defeat the Republican senator Dean Heller in Nevada last year.
Indeed, we have other data that backs this up:
Seen this way, it’s a win-win for the Democrats.
According to some interpretations of the data, there is not broad, widespread support for impeachment yet. But this is an odd argument.
By their very nature, impeachments are rare happenings, and it is hard to draw general statements from singular events. Including Trump, the only other presidents to undergo official inquiries are Nixon, Clinton, and Andrew Johnson. And that is only counting presidents. As the Los Angeles Times notes:
Only 20 government officers in all, including Johnson and Clinton, have been impeached, and only eight of them, all federal judges with lifetime tenure, have been convicted and removed from office.
Additionally, as NPR points out:
The truth is — impeachment has almost never been popular. It tends to pump up the partisans in either party but has far less allure for the less politically inclined. Independent voters, it should be noted, have been especially slow to take up the impeachment cry. ... [Pelosi] surely remembers how difficult it had been to sell the public on the case against Nixon, a case so overwhelming by the summer of 1974 that he chose to resign in the face of certain impeachment (with senators from his own party telling him he had to go). Yet, even as Nixon’s Washington power base eroded and then collapsed, the public accepted the change only grudgingly.
Impeachment is a tool the Legislative Branch uses to curtail the Executive. These are obvious facts. But obvious facts have a way of being forgotten in the moment. That Donald Trump would be tried for impeachment was not a certain conclusion, merely a likely one. This White House has been in the crossfire of scandal since its inception, and the House is in the hands of its political opponents. What has happened in the Ukraine-Trump talks is not about a single plain statement, but about the slow, steady accretion of scandal, political pressure, and time. Numbers tell the story, as they typically do. In these days, every little thing counts.