Robert Gehrke: Impeachment puts Ben McAdams in a quandary with his political career on the line

Robert Gehrke

Back in the summer of 1974, Rep. Wayne Owens, a haggard-looking freshman, was among the Democrats pressing the case for the impeachment of President Richard Nixon.

“In Utah, at that time, the No. 1 most popular person according to public opinion polls was the president of the LDS Church” said Tim Chambless, a retired political science professor at the University of Utah who spent the summer of 1973 working in Owens’ Washington office and later his campaign. “Second was the president of the United States.”

Nixon won Utah in 1972 with 68% of the vote. But over the course of the Watergate investigation, opinion turned against Nixon and, ultimately, the Judiciary Committee approved three articles of impeachment, prompting the president to resign from office.

“I take no joy and no satisfaction in this decision,” Owens said of his role at the time. “It is a disgusting and distasteful task … I do it strictly because of the obligation imposed by my membership on this committee and by my judgment that the Constitution requires it of me.”

His son, Steve Owens, who has a box of his father’s impeachment memorabilia, said his dad paid a political price for the decision. “There’s no question that impeachment played a role in his loss.”

Owens, who decided to make a run for Senate in 1974, had been leading his opponent by as much as 30 points in early polling. By the time the election rolled around, he lost to Jake Garn, 53-47.

That history can’t possibly be lost on Utah Rep. Ben McAdams as he is faced with a thorny vote on whether to impeach President Donald Trump.

McAdams’ position is not as high-profile as Owens’, who was a member of the Judiciary Committee that spearheaded impeachment. Still, McAdams’ seat has been rated as the most vulnerable in the country, having won the 2018 election by 694 votes.

The Trump campaign and national Republicans are targeting McAdams, spending money on ads trying to crank up the heat.

It will likely be the most consequential vote McAdams will take and could determine his political fate.

“I think what I’ve got are two really bad options,” McAdams told KSL last week. “One option is to do nothing — and I think the president’s behavior is wrong and we need to make that statement for the record and for history and for future presidents.

“I’ve got another option that I think further divides the country, stokes these flames of partisanship and divisiveness,” he said, “all for something that will never really see the light of day in the Senate.”

On Tuesday, Politico reported that McAdams was among a small group of moderate House members who sought a third option, a motion to censure the president, stopping short of impeachment.

There is absolutely no chance it will happen, but it shows how McAdams is trying to navigate his way out of the bind in which he finds himself.

So now what?

The easy thing, politically, would be for him to vote against impeachment. He could argue that what the president did was wrong, but rather than sew more division, he would trust voters to decide Trump’s fate.

The Democratic base would lose its mind and he would buy himself a primary challenge, but we’ve seen that story play out before with Rep. Jim Matheson who always managed to emerge unscathed, and it’s likely that McAdams would, too, and he would be in a stronger position for re-election.

The flip side, he could ignore the politics — or, depending on your viewpoint, fall in line with party leaders — and vote to impeach.

On the surface, it may not seem like a huge liability. Trump is not popular in the 4th District, winning just 39% of the vote in the 2016 election (which included third-party candidate Evan McMullin). In August, before impeachment ramped up, Trump’s approval rating was just 37% in the district, according to a UtahPolicy poll.

I suspect you could count every one of those Trump supporters who voted for McAdams without taking your shoes off.

The problem is that, according to national polls, Trump’s support has solidified during the impeachment process and, it’s safe to assume, the same is true to some degree in Utah. Some of that likely is the tribal mentality — nobody beats up on our ignoramus except us.

There are also big differences between Watergate and — well, it doesn’t have a name, does it? That’s part of the problem. Trump’s abuse of power is as real, but the scheme is more complex. There’s not a simple burglary at the core — or tapes of the president plotting the coverup, for that matter. A burglary is something the public can grasp. Denying military aid to a country most people couldn’t find on a map isn’t exactly the stuff of “Law & Order” episodes.

A vote to impeach carries a lot more risk of alienating the moderates McAdams relies on. Minutes after articles of impeachment were announced, one of McAdams’ Republican opponents, state Sen. Dan Hemmert, was on Facebook bragging that “I stand with President Trump.”

This is a time, however, for McAdams to ignore politics and follow in the footsteps of Wayne Owens regardless of how the election turns out.

“This is the most important vote that I will probably ever cast,” Owens said during the impeachment hearings, “and I want to face that mirror in later years with the peace that will come from knowledge that I gave my best efforts to this inquiry and voted solely upon the dictates of my conscience.”