Impeaching Trump won't change our dysfunctional political system. But it'll ensure his re-election.

The erosion of political norms and the rise of hyperpartisanship make impeachment a useless remedy for Trumpism, as well as counterproductive.
Image: President Trump Returns To White House
President Donald Trump gives a thumbs-up as he walks across the South Lawn after returning to the White House on May 25, 2018.Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images file
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By Robert Schlesinger

Since we do not currently have a functional political system, it is possible for two assertions to be true: The Mueller report presented ample evidence that President Donald Trump engaged in acts like obstruction of justice which would be impeachable offenses; and Democrats should not impeach Trump.

The simultaneous erosion of political “norms” — the unwritten rules of comity and cooperation which grease the wheels of our politics — and the blossoming of partisan hyperpolarization have left impeachment useless as a remedy for Trumpism and, worse, counterproductive.

This broader crisis of governance preceded Trump, but it is one that he has measurably exacerbated: That detailed evidence of obstruction moves Republican office-holders not a scintilla from their support of Trump is the latest example of it.

That is not to say that those calling for Trump’s impeachment are unreasonable: The Mueller report is a damning litany against the president and his shady gang, and there is no question that obstruction of justice is an impeachable offense (it was one of the particulars against both former presidents Richard Nixon and Bill Clinton).

Thus, in order to ignore the facts of the report, you have to either willfully misinterpret them, like Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, who — while declaring himself “sickened” by it — asserted incorrectly that “there was insufficient evidence to charge the president”; or you have to simply decide that nothing matters, like Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., who once thought obstruction of justice was a really big deal but is now ready to move on.

Romney and Graham are representative of congressional Republicans as a whole who are anxious to get past Mueller and his report — perhaps with a patina of disapproval for Trump aimed at obfuscating their fundamentally unswerving obeisance to the man.

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The operating political ethos has become that of a zero-sum struggle, in which no holds are barred if they can bestow even a temporary edge on one party. Compromise went from being a fundamental principle of the system to a mortal sin.

Metastasizing hyperpartisanship has changed the calculus by which the levers of governance are viewed: Actions that were once seen as out of bounds or not even considered because they were too reckless are reconsidered in the narrow light of whether they can provide an advantage today — and tomorrow be damned.

Consider the norms that have been tossed aside in recent decades. There was a time when everything in the Senate was not subject to a filibuster and thus a 60-vote threshold to pass. The idea of leveraging a government shutdown to jam through a controversial policy used to be unheard of; ditto the kind of debt-limit political terrorism which aims to hold hostage the nation’s good faith and credit.

The judicial confirmation process has in the last two decades become a special locus of partisan bloodletting, culminating in the cold theft of a Supreme Court seat by the GOP majority and their subsequent hear-no-evil, see-no-evil rubber-stamp of Brett Kavanaugh. Plus, there was a time when the word of a foreign aggression against our political system would have provoked a unanimous national outrage instead of partisan sandbagging.

But that was all changing even before Trump, who views any sort of rule hampering his authority — written or unwritten — with hostility. He has acted as a human accelerant, serially smashing norms since entering the 2016 race, including that presidential candidates shouldn’t engage in open race-baiting, encourage violence among their political supporters, call for their rivals to be incarcerated, or denounce the political system as rigged.

In office, norms have dictated that presidents: divest of their business interests and disclose their financial ties by releasing their tax returns; not serially overrule career bureaucrats who say that (unqualified) family members, among others, should be denied top security clearances; refrain from using national emergency powers to circumvent Congress; pay at least lip-service to congressional oversight responsibilities rather than flatly vowing to ignore the Hill; and try to keep partisanship out of nonpartisan settings such as addresses to U.S. troops and the Boy Scouts.

Besides that, politicizing the judicial system and trying to obstruct justice used to be out of bounds.

All of these examples underscore the meta-norm which has been vitiated: The notion that there are things more important than party. There was a time — as recently as 1974 — when clear evidence of presidential obstruction could lead at least some Republicans to conclude that impeachment and removal were warranted.

Which brings us back to the issue dogging Democrats: To impeach or not to impeach?

That depends in part upon their ultimate goal. If it’s removing Trump from office because he is a threat to the system, the extant avenue is next year’s presidential election. Political analysts as disparate as the House Democratic leadership and Trump’s campaign team have concluded that impeachment would be a 2020 boon for Trump: Not only would it rile up Trump’s hardcore supporters, it could activate the partisan impulses of persuadable Republicans — voters who don’t like Trump but will line up behind their team if they think the other side is engaged in political dirty tricks.

This is not to say that Democrats should drop their pursuit of Trump entirely: All agree that the full range of Trump’s iniquities should be laid bare. The disagreement comes regarding whether it should be done in service to impeachment or regular oversight, with an eye toward the ballot box.

In the near-term, the most important matter is removing the threat of the Trump presidency — especially an eight-year-long one. And maybe, if the Democrats can manage that without alienating the non-Trump right, it can prove to be a small step toward fixing the larger problems of our broken system.