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Impeachment cannot be on the table just because Democrats won the House

Focus on policy, not payback. The country cannot afford a rerun of the 1994 Republican takeover.
Image: Donald Trump
US President Donald Trump arrives for a "Make America Great Again" campaign rally at McKenzie Arena, in Chattanooga, Tennessee on Nov.4, 2018.Nicholas Kamm / AFP - Getty Images

The results of this midterm election signaled a rejection of Trump's ugly, intemperate and divisive brand of political warfare. But the repudiation of the president is not a mandate for House Democrats to impeach him — and acting like it is will imperil both the tenuous majority in the House and the party's hopes of retaking the White House.

History shows us as much: I was a proud acolyte of Newt Gingrich in 1994, when he engineered a historic takeover of the House on the basis of the so-called Contract with America, which extolled such policy prescriptions as lower taxes and tort and welfare reform.

Shortly after taking control of the House, however, Republicans adopt a scorched-earth strategy of hounding Bill Clinton with empty Congressional investigations and scandal-mongering, including Travelgate, Filegate, Vincent Foster's suicide and, of course, Whitewater.

But that's not why voters elected Republicans to lead, and Clinton cruised to re-election in 1996. in the 1998 midterms — widely seen as a referendum on Clinton's impeachment, which had little to do with the scandals Republicans had initially drummed up — Democrats defied history and actually gained seats. Snarling Senators like Al D'Amato, R-N.Y., and Lauch Faircloth, R-N.C., who had become the face of the GOP, ended up losing their seats.

Democrats and the country cannot afford to let history repeat itself, no matter how much they detest the president. Democrats ran on a winning message of issues front and center in voters lives, like health care — not impeachment. Pursuing impeachment now, which will necessarily come at the expense of everything else on the agenda for which they won, would allow Trump and his surrogates to credibly portray the entire party as a subpoena-happy and solely interested in obstruction.

If they follow the path carved out by Republicans after 1994, easily-caricatured Democratic committee chairmen — who may well hail from the liberal coasts — would dominate the cable airwaves bashing the president rather than promoting the policies that got them elected, which is not a good look for the independent swing voters that Democrats will need to regain the White House in 2020. And every candidate for the party's presidential nomination would be constantly pushed by the news media to comment on the matter of impeachment, rather than differentiating themselves from Trump on the basis of their policies.

Democrats can, of course, claim something of a mandate to bring a measure of accountability and transparency to a Trump administration that has brazenly operated for two years with none. Voters have clearly turned on the rubber-stamp yes men, many of whom were decisively defeated.

But Democrats should focus on policy disagreements and ostentatious malfeasance, not personal peccadilloes, in choosing their investigatory targets. Fruitful areas of inquiry include Trump's botched "zero tolerance" border enforcement initiative, conflicts of interest with lobbyists entering the administration and public corruption by Trump's cabinet members.

Meanwhile while continuing to stand up for the Affordable Care Act, Democrats should reach across the aisle to pass an infrastructure bill and move on criminal justice reform; voters want the parties to work together on some things, after all. Then, if they really want to help assure victory in 2020, they should definitively focus on key issues that have come to define this election for many voters, pushing for changes to campaign finance and ethics laws, outlawing the gerrymandering of congressional districts and restoring enforcement provisions to the Voting Rights Act.

The one caveat to this advice hinges on the investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 election by special counsel Robert Mueller. If Mueller — by all accounts a careful prosecutor — does in fact send a report to Congress identifying slam-dunk impeachable offenses by the president, Congress will be obliged to discharge its constitutional duty. But Democrats should resist the urge to pounce and wait until the facts are in and, if they aren't quite the game-winners some have assumed, not drum up an impeachment trial on minor issues — which is what Republicans did with Clinton in 1998, thereby losing both the trial and, in many cases, the election.

If Democrats in Congress, succumbing to pent-up frustration within the base, go down the impeachment road prematurely it will be at all of our political peril. Aping the president's message of radical dissent, disunity and destruction which hardly served him well on Tuesday won't serve the Democrats well going into 2020 — and Republicans proved that to themselves in the 1990s.