Lisa Murkowski told her fellow senators that President Trump’s conduct in the Ukrainian affair that led to his impeachment was far from perfect. “The president’s behavior was shameful and wrong,” said the Alaska Republican. “His personal interests do not take precedence over those of this great nation.”
Yet, she added, she would not vote to oust Trump from office. “The president’s name is on ballots that have already been cast,” Murkowski noted. “The voters will pronounce a verdict in 9 months, and we must trust their judgment.”
Many Democrats deride Murkowski and other moderate Republicans for not standing up to a corrupt and tyrannical president, and there’s some truth to their allegations. But there’s another way of viewing the dismal disaster impeachment became: Respect Murkowski’s argument. Trust the voters to get it right.
The Democrats conclusively proved the facts of their case. Without a doubt, the president engineered a scheme to cheat in the next election by coercing a vulnerable ally to investigate a chief rival, Joe Biden.
For Trump’s lawyers to argue that “the president has done nothing wrong” is patently ridiculous, and plenty of Republicans join Murkowski in conceding that fact. But an enormous question remains: Does “shameful and wrong” equal impeachable? Should Congress have altered the outcome of two elections, 2016 and 2020?
Many Democrats don’t want to hear it, but there is a strong case to be made that the answer is no. That it’s better to leave that decision to the voters and “trust their judgment.”
The bar for impeachment is very high, and should be. That’s why no president in our entire history has ever been removed from office. But the bar for denying a president a second term is much lower, and should be. Within 16 years, between 1976 and 1992, three presidents were defeated for reelection: Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter and George Bush 41.
That’s why the Democrats need to get past impeachment and focus on the goal they should have been emphasizing all along: making sure Trump joins that list of one-term presidents.
Murkowski was right about something else, too: the failure of both houses of Congress to handle impeachment well. Early last year, Speaker Nancy Pelosi correctly said, “Impeachment is so divisive to the country that unless there’s something so compelling and overwhelming and bipartisan, I don’t think we should go down that path, because it divides the country.”
After Trump’s misbehavior toward Ukraine surfaced, however, the speaker ignored her own admonition and plunged ahead with impeachment. She was right the first time. “Shameful and wrong” is not the same as “compelling and overwhelming and bipartisan.”
To make matters worse, the House, in Murkowski’s words, “rushed through what should have been one of the most serious, consequential undertakings of a legislative branch, simply to meet an artificial self-imposed deadline.” The Senate Watergate Committee investigated for 18 months before Richard Nixon resigned in August of 1974. The House proceedings against Trump lasted less than three months from start to finish.
The Senate behaved just as badly, “and should be ashamed by the rank partisanship that has been on display here,” Murkowski asserted. The many obligatory references to “the World’s Greatest Deliberative Body” were a cruel joke. Hardly any senator kept an open mind or deliberated about anything. The Watergate example of Republican senators listening to the evidence and changing their positions to oppose a president of their own party was almost totally ignored.
So here we are. The Democrats have blundered into handing Trump a powerful argument for his reelection. “No conviction” will join his well-worn battle cry of “no collusion.” But there is another side to this story: While impeachment might have been an ill-conceived idea, it did produce a mountain of evidence documenting Trump’s fatal unfitness for running the country.
This is the president’s biggest weakness, and the Democrats’ biggest challenge. As Biden has often said, “Character is on the ballot.” While polls consistently show that only about half of all voters wanted the president removed from office, about 2 in 3 say he acted illegally or unethically.
No matter who emerges as the party nominee after the chaos and uncertainty of Iowa, that’s the group Democrats have to win over: about 15% of the electorate – many of them suburban women – who did not back impeachment, but find Trump’s actions to be “shameful and wrong.” Can they be convinced that character counts, that the president doesn’t deserve a second term? The election could turn on the answer.
Steven Roberts teaches politics and journalism at George Washington University. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.