DANIEL VAUGHAN: Substance matters in impeachment – but we don’t have that here

November 25, 2019

I was tweeting back and forth with Chris Hayes of MSNBC this week — as one does on that platform — and he maintains that there’s more to impeachment than just raw politics. To an extent, he’s right: the substance of the allegations mattered when Democrats were crafting the basis of their impeachment inquiry.

But the reason the current attempt to oust the president won’t boil down to any substance is that neither party — as a whole — is interested in the content of the allegations.

I don’t see this as a flaw or a failure of the system, as Hayes suggests; I see it as a feature (though I wouldn’t call it a function of the system so much as it is a feature of human nature). We’re tribal creatures and far more apt to trust a leader of our own political tribe than someone else. As Alexander Hamilton noted in Federalist No. 65, the impeachment process is divisive, and it:

…[agitates] the passions of the whole community, and [divides] it into parties more or less friendly or inimical to the accused. In many cases it will connect itself with the pre-existing factions, and will enlist all their animosities, partialities, influence, and interest on one side or on the other; and in such cases there will always be the greatest danger that the decision will be regulated more by the comparative strength of parties, than by the real demonstrations of innocence or guilt.

Here, Hamilton is describing what will inevitably happen with impeachment, and which branch should handle it. A president is a duly elected representative of the entire country — so when the legislative branch exercises the extreme power of removal, it better come with the goods. Removing a person who has convinced a majority of the country to vote for him or her is not something to do lightly.

As Hayes notes, there is a critical substance portion of impeachment. But if you’re bringing substance, it had better be good enough and strong enough to change the political opinions of a country.

And that’s the opposite of what we have in the present situation. Only two presidents have ever been impeached: Andrew Johnson and Bill Clinton. Richard Nixon resigned before the voting started.

Johnson was impeached in the House, but his removal lost in the Senate by one vote. Congress was mad that Johnson violated the Tenure of Office Act by firing the person Congress aimed to protect.

Congress passed that act in March of 1867, and instituted impeachment proceedings on Feb. 24, 1868, with the final votes in the Senate occurring in May of 1868. It was a long process, with a lot of debate, and a Congress that was still interested in doing its job — something that doesn’t happen anymore.

Nixon was winning the public relations aspect of Watergate, maintaining public approval until the tapes got released. It was very late into the Watergate story, but once the public heard those tapes, Nixon resigned rather than fight the political battle.

Finally, Clinton’s impeachment occurred once Congress got Clinton on tape lying under oath. But even though everyone widely agreed that Clinton’s conduct was wrong, it didn’t merit impeachment according to the public.

And Democrats made all the same arguments then that Republicans are making now. Had Hayes run his show during the Clinton impeachment, we could expect a pretty typical defense on his part for Clinton.

I point all that out to say that while its important for the substance to be there, it ultimately doesn’t matter. Imagine, if you will, that Donald Trump’s administration had admitted that the IRS targeted various groups based on their political beliefs. Or imagine that the Trump administration gave out exclusive government deals to energy company friends. Or imagine the Trump administration was caught lying about a terrorist attack on U.S. troops. We’d hear non-stop debate on impeachment on those grounds.

All of those are, of course, stories from the Obama administration. But there was not a single peep out of all the pro-impeachment groups who have popped up in recent months. In fact, it’s a meme now that the only scandal during the Obama administration was him wearing a tan suit. Other than that, they call it a perfect administration — a “perfect” administration that multiple Democrats are trashing now in the primaries.

The substance does matter. But it doesn’t take much partisan maneuvering to ignore that substance. And the current Ukraine scandal is far less impeachable than targeting of political enemies via the IRS, wiretapping journalists, or lying about the deaths of ambassadors.

The problem, in this case, is that Democrats aren’t interested in the substance. They’ve called a litany of one-sided witnesses and denied requests to bring in any other counter-witnesses. Adam Schiff and his team have created a hyperpartisan process, and everyone has acted shocked that Republicans have answered that partisan process with a thoroughly partisan response.

The American people are reading this correctly, seeing it as a wholly partisan affair that is supported or rejected purely on party grounds. Support for impeachment among independent voters has plummeted as the hearings have gone on, and people tune out the partisan matter.

If the bulk of your substance is partisan, is it a real substance at all?

I’m on record saying that Trump’s conduct is terrible and we shouldn’t have a president doing such things. The substance is bad. But Hayes and his cohort haven’t made a case for impeachment. They’ve made a case for letting the public decide in the 2020 elections.

That makes Nancy Pelosi’s job even more difficult as she weighs forcing swing-state Democrats to walk the political plank.

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Daniel Vaughan

Daniel Vaughan is a columnist for the Conservative Institute and lawyer in Nashville, Tennessee. He has degrees from Middle Tennessee State University and Regent University School of Law. His work can be found on the Conservative Institute's website, or you can receive his columns and free weekly newsletter at The Beltway Outsiders. Connect with him on Twitter at @dvaughanCI.