Opening an impeachment inquiry would start a process many Americans would see as an attempt to circumvent the 2020 election ‘Attempting to short-circuit the 2020 election would harm America’s democracy, not enhance it.’ Photograph: J Scott Applewhite/APUpon taking control of Congress in 2006, House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi declared that impeachment of then-President George W Bush was “off the table.”Her remarks dismayed many critics of Bush, who continued to press Pelosi and other Democratic leaders to pursue impeachment against the Republican president. They pointed to the Bush administration’s warrantless surveillance, the illegal war in Iraq, and the use of torture.Articles of impeachment were authored by Ohio Democratic Representative Dennis Kucinich, who netted a small group of co-sponsors for his resolution. But as we all know, no impeachment proceedings were ever launched against Bush, and the administration’s officials escaped any accountability from its successors. President Obama famously said he preferred to “look forward as opposed to looking backwards” when it came to accountability on issues like torture and wiretapping.To many onlookers, the approach by Democratic leadership towards President Donald Trump seems to be a case of deja vu. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has repeatedly rebuffed calls to begin impeachment proceedings against the president. “I’m not for impeachment … 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. And he’s just not worth it,” she said in March.Compared to Bush, the logic of impeaching Trump is far less straightforward. There are real concerns about whether Trump is violating the emoluments clause and his contempt of Congress, but neither of these issues compare to Bush’s illegal behavior, which severely violated the rights of millions of Americans and others. Although House Democrats are frustrated by Trump’s attempt to block their subpoenas and investigations of his financial dealings across the world, they do not have a clear-cut case of high crimes and misdemeanors that could set the stage for a successful impeachment – the same way warrantless surveillance or waterboarding presented one.Impeachment is a sort of last resort the legislative branch has to deploy against a president who is acting outside the boundaries of the law. It is important for Congress to never declare that impeachment is off the table – as Pelosi did in 2006 – because it sends a message to the executive branch that its members cannot be held legally accountable. That sort of impunity would be antithetical to our system of checks and balances.But what Pelosi is arguing this time around is much more reasonable. She supports Congressional oversight and investigations into the Trump administration and the president’s personal financial dealings as a way to expose possible wrongdoing. And she is leaving the door open to impeachment if the facts suggest that it is necessary.These investigations can inform the American public about the way Trump is choosing to govern and allow them to make an educated choice in the 2020 election, without setting off what could be an extremely polarizing and contentious impeachment proceeding that is unlikely to succeed.It is true that the president is stonewalling some of these investigations, and that’s one reason some Democrats are warming to an impeachment inquiry that they believe would allow them to get at information they currently can’t obtain.Yet within the halls of Congress, the votes don’t seem to be there for an impeachment, according to the House’s third-ranking Democrat, South Carolina’s Jim Clyburn. Meanwhile, the US Senate is run by Kentucky Republican Mitch McConnell, who would never go along with an effort to remove the president.Opening an impeachment inquiry would start a process many Americans would see as an attempt to circumvent the 2020 election – denying voters the ability to have the final say on Trump’s conduct as president. Americans simply aren’t ready for as divisive a process as trying to impeach the president; even many who are critical of Trump don’t support impeaching him. A Washington Post/ABC News poll conducted in April found that only 37% of Americans support opening an impeachment inquiry.Perhaps what Pelosi understands is that what Americans want Congress to focus on is bread and butter issues and a forward-looking agenda. Gallup polling released in November of 2018 found that 80% of voters said health care was extremely or very important to their vote; the Russia investigation, the nexus of many of the impeachment calls against President Trump, was 12th among issues polled, sitting at just 45%.This doesn’t mean that Congress shouldn’t investigate the conduct of the Trump administration or the president’s personal financial dealings as they relate to the public interest. It is important for the public to have all the relevant information in order to make educated choices in the upcoming election. And if Trump continues to stonewall these investigations, voters have every right to punish him for it.It is also well past time for Congress to pass reforms that could prevent abuses of presidential power in the future. While then-Judiciary Committee chair Michigan Democratic Representative John Conyers declined to start impeachment proceedings against Bush, he did introduce legislation to establish a commission on war powers and civil liberties; sadly, it did not go anywhere. If Pelosi is serious about investigating and holding the executive branch accountable, she could help set up a similar commission that could help create reforms in the law to rein in an unaccountable executive in the future.But ultimately it is voters who will decide President Trump’s fate. The votes in Congress aren’t there for impeachment, and Americans aren’t convinced that it is justified based on the facts. Pelosi is wise to avoid invoking this nuclear option, which would only further polarize a country that is increasingly at odds with itself over political differences. We have a democratic process to empower Americans to choose their leaders. Attempting to short-circuit the 2020 election would harm America’s democracy, not enhance it.
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