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Democrats can do a lot if they win in November… but not impeachment

Protest sign reading "No to Trump's Amerikkka"
Thousands of people turned out for the anti racism, anti Donald Trump rally through central London.Photo: Shutterstock

Democrats can hardly wait to get to the polls in November to show Republicans what they think of President Trump and his policies.

And not just Democrats: independents, especially women independents, are tilting toward Democrats in such a way that Republicans are rightly worried about a blue wave sweeping them out of office.

What Democrats are counting on is that a combination of anger and disgust at the president will boost voter turnout in their favor.

Fifty days out from the election, that looks like a winning bet. Most polls favor Democrats capturing the House of Representatives, and Republicans are now beginning to sweat that Democrats might have a path to capture the Senate, despite the races being on traditionally GOP turf.

While all the energy and enthusiasm among Democrats is on reclaiming Congress, the question remains: what they will do if they succeed? If anyone is expecting Democrats to stop Trump in his tracks, they are likely to be disappointed.

To begin with, what the next two years will look like depends on whether Democrats win both houses of Congress or just the House of Representatives. If Democrats ride a huge wave to victory in both houses, then the will have more power to check Trump’s excesses.

Still, even if it’s just the House of Representatives, Democrats can start the kind of oversight into Trump administration corruption to which Republicans have willingly turned a blind eye. In fact, corruption is the issue that Democrats are campaigning on.

A Democrat-controlled House would mean a series of public hearings on the rich vein of self-dealing and incompetence that characterizes the Trump presidency.

It would mean looking into the obvious: Trump’s business dealings while president, his hidden tax returns,  the Scott Pruitt scandals, the response to the hurricane in Puerto Rico – the list goes on and on. It will probably also include such issues as Trump’s transgender military ban and rollback of protections for transgender students.

The hearings will unveil a lot of what has been kept under wraps. Moreover, Democrats will have subpoena power, which means that they can force people to testify under oath before Congress. Lying is a risky option for witnesses, since that’s a federal offense, punishable by up to five years in prison. 

How much of a disinfectant the hearings will be is anyone’s guess. But they are bound to produce a bonanza of embarrassing headlines for Trump and his administration.

That will double if Democrats capture the Senate, as committees there hold their own hearings.

However, the main threat to Trump from a Democrat-led Senate is to his nominees, particularly his ultra-conservative judicial nominees. As Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination shows, the Democrats have little hope of stopping nominees if they are in the minority. However, they can grind the nomination process to a halt if they are in the majority.

As important as it will be to have a check in Trump, there are limits to what Democrats will be able to do. For example, the administration will still be able to change policies in ways designed to harm the LGBTQ community without Congress being able to do much about it.

Democrats can put administration officials in the hot seat to explain those changes, but as long as they don’t require Congressional approval, there’s not a lot that Democrats can do about it.

The biggest limit may be one that Democrats impose on themselves: impeachment. The party has been studiously avoiding talking about impeachment as an issue for the midterms, although Republicans are using it to scare their base to turn out at the ballot box.

There’s no question that a lot of Democrats look at the septic tank that is the Trump administration and want the president to be held accountable. Unfortunately for them, there are a lot of practical reasons why that’s not likely to happen.

For one, you need evidence. As political as impeachment is, it is also a legal proceeding. Democrats would have to hold hearings to turn up evidence of the mythical high crimes and misdemeanors needed to impeach. We all know that Trump is too cozy with Russian President Vladimir Putin, but we don’t know whether Trump actually colluded with Russians during the campaign. We know that Trump is using the presidency to make money for his businesses, but the Trump Organization is a private company, and we have no idea what it’s finances look like.

The hearings will take time. All of 2019 could be consumed by digging up dirt on Trump for impeachment proceedings. At which points, Democrats are looking at 2020, the year of the presidential campaign, to follow through.

That’s really bad timing.

Democrats have to know that by then they should be focused on solidifying and expanding their potential 2018 gains. An impeachment proceeding the year of the election may be emotionally satisfying, but if Trump is going to be thrown out of office anyway in November, why bother giving Mike Pence the presidency he thinks God has in store for him?

Moreover, impeachment can have unexpected consequences. Bill Clinton’s job approval ratings actually rose during his impeachment hearings. Trump no doubt would seize the impeachment hearings to solidify his base of support.

There’s one last, overriding argument against impeachment: the numbers for conviction aren’t there. Impeachment requires a two-thirds vote of the Senate to convict, and Democrats will never convince enough Republicans to join them. Having provided cover to Trump for so long, GOP Senators would be committing political suicide to admit that they were wrong all along.

Of course, maybe hearings will uncover a check from Vladimir Putin’s personal account made out to Trump. But the Democrats’ best bet is going to be to make Trump’s life miserable by surfacing all the rot in the White House. There will still be plenty of time to hold Trump accountable once he leaves office. He won’t have the presidency to protect him from indictment then.

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