Impeachment is a political act dressed up as a simple matter of legalities. Used sparingly in most of America’s history it has blossomed as a tactic. From the first time it was employed against President Andrew Johnson for replacing Secretary of War Edwin Stanton to the farcical applications to William Jefferson Clinton — the motives have been political, not over the “rule of law.”
Indeed the Johnson case is instructive since he was impeached over the Tenure of Office Act, which was later struck down by the Supreme Court. It was a clear violation of the separation of powers regardless of what one may have thought of Johnson’s policies. It is also instructive that Johnson was saved by only one vote from being removed from office.
Perhaps another example of the mission of impeachment happened at the state level and not the federal. This was in Louisiana when legislators, anxious to terminate the governorship of Huey P. Long, decided to impeach over a disagreement over a tax dispute. Long, who they accused essentially of behaving in a gauche fashion, was actually impeached because he dared to tax Standard Oil.
Long fought back, not only rallying the base but taking the fight to those senators eager to convict. These anti-Longs convinced of their rectitude and moral superiority thought all people would see the rightness of their cause. Instead, 15 senators signed a round-robin stating they would not vote to convict in any case. These “Robineers” as they were known smartly saw behind the innuendo and gossip and saw it for the political plot that it was.
Democrats are stuck in a similar spot as the anti-Longs. They have a bloc of Republican senators who will not vote to convict under any circumstances. Let’s assume that Trump obstructed justice, would it in the grand scheme justify removal? Does lying on the campaign trail necessarily void a successful candidacy? The Watergate tendency to criminalize politics has given would-be prosecutors a wide berth.
Certainly the results of impeachment usually do not help the initiator. With the exception of the 1974 midterms and 1976 presidential election, the exercise is counter productive. When Johnson’s trial ended, the public mood was not as overwhelmingly in support as supposed. Horatio Seymour, a Democrat of dubious character, accrued 47% of the vote against Republican hero Ulysses S. Grant. Moreover, in 1998, Bill Clinton made gains in the midterms but the GOP impeached anyway.
But, Trump could probably find that imitating Long might prove profitable. After the trial, Long skewered his opposition, deciding to run for Senate in 1930. He won handily and began to shape Louisiana politics for generations.
Like Trump, Long had nicknames for his opponents. T. Semmes Walmsley, the aristocratic mayor of New Orleans, was dubbed “turkeyhead” by Long and the name stuck. Indeed, the drama of Huey’s redemption made him appear a victim — but a victim with a razor wit and a vicious and funny tongue.
Impeachment is a doomed route better replaced with a vigorous argument.