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OP-ED: Impeachment causing a blue Christmas? Let’s get real

Ramesh Ponnuru
Bloomberg News (TNS)
The articles of impeachment against President Donald Trump photographed on Dec. 10, 2019 in Washington. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

Kevin McCarthy, the House Republican leader, has cast the Democrats as the Grinch, complaining that they impeached the president just “hours before Christmas” (123 hours, to be exact). Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi has been spending the past few days broadcasting to the world how “sad” she is that impeachment has proved necessary, and narrowcasting to her Democratic colleagues how sad they should take care to look as well.

As polarizing as the impeachment of Donald Trump has been, it seems to have brought the parties together in professions of gloom.

Many of the worries that politicians and the press have brought up are, happily, overblown.

Start with the notion that impeaching Trump will “tear our country apart,” as Democratic Rep.Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii said in September. We heard the same lament during the impeachment of President Bill Clinton. Impeachment was bitterly divisive back then, as it is now. Yet are 1998 and 1999 remembered as bleak years in American history? No: The public was more satisfied with the state of the country than before or afterward, which is part of why President Bill Clinton wasn’t removed from office.

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Republicans have been warning that impeachment will cause a backlash that costs House Democrats many seats in the 2020 election. Concern about that prospect led Pelosi to resist it until the Ukraine controversy arose and then to handle it quickly. Again, the Clinton precedent counsels against overreaction. That impeachment was less popular than the current one, and many more of the Congress members who voted for it represented seats that had voted for the president in the previous election. Predictions of Republican doom filled the airwaves. The party ended up losing only two seats in the House in the next election.

Republicans are also warning, as Democrats did 20 years ago, that impeachment will become routine. The next Democratic president serving alongside a Republican House will get impeached, too. That prediction may prove true. And if presidents were to be removed for frivolous reasons, it would be profoundly destabilizing. But that danger seems remote, because removal requires both a majority of votes in the House and two-thirds of the Senate. Impeachment has caused the departure of only one president in our history, when Richard Nixon resigned to preempt his removal.

Perhaps, then, what we should really worry about is the weakening of the impeachment power through overuse? Will future presidents feel less constrained by the threat of impeachment and thus more inclined to abuse their power? That concern, too, has been raised here and there. But it’s not clear that fear of being removed from office has done a lot to restraint presidents before now. Surely presidents, even the thickest of them, have noticed that the removal power has never been used and that a two-thirds Senate majority for removal is nearly impossible to assemble.

Vice President Mike Pence has called impeachment “a complete waste of time,” keeping Congress from doing the people’s work. Journalists have speculated that impeachment would cause “political paralysis.” To evaluate this claim, we need to have a realistic baseline of what would have happened in the absence of impeachment.

For good or ill, Congress and the president were not enacting a lot of major laws before impeachment began. Since it did, Congress has agreed on a budget, and the administration and China have hit pause on their trade war. A refurbished North American Free Trade Agreement is on the verge of getting through Congress. Not only has impeachment not stopped Washington from getting anything done, it has probably contributed to the passage of the trade deal, because some House Democrats want to demonstrate they can work with the president on discrete issues even while trying to remove him from office.

In September, Trump tweeted that “the markets would crash” if Democrats opened an impeachment inquiry. Instead, stocks have continued to rise. Unemployment has kept falling, too. There is no sign that impeachment is disrupting the economy. It didn’t cause any slowdown two decades ago, either.

There is, of course, a great deal that is disheartening about the spectacle of impeachment. But most of it has to do with the long-running decay of our institutions and the failure of our officials to fulfill their responsibilities. This moment ought to be an opportunity to reflect on how we can do better. What it is not is a cataclysm. Christmas can go on as scheduled.

— Ramesh Ponnuru is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He is a senior editor at National Review, visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and contributor to CBS News.