Is it possible that more than 20 Republican senators will vote to convict Donald Trump of articles of impeachment? When you hang around Washington, you get the sense that it could happen.
The evidence against Trump is overwhelming. This Ukraine quid pro quo wasn’t just a single reckless phone call. It was a multiprong several-month campaign to use the levers of American power to destroy a political rival.
Republican legislators are being bludgeoned with this truth in testimony after testimony. They know in their hearts that Trump is guilty of impeachable offenses. It’s evident in the way they stare glumly at their desks during hearings; the way they flee reporters seeking comment; the way they slag the White House off the record. It’ll be hard for them to vote to acquit if they can’t even come up with a non-ludicrous rationale.
And yet when you get outside Washington, it’s hard to imagine more than one or two GOP senators voting to convict.
In the first place, Democrats have not won widespread public support. Nancy Pelosi always said impeachment works only if there’s a bipartisan groundswell, and so far there is not. Trump’s job approval numbers have been largely unaffected by the impeachment inquiry. Support for impeachment breaks down on conventional pro-Trump/anti-Trump lines. Roughly 90% of Republican voters oppose it. Republican senators will never vote to convict in the face of that.
Second, Democrats have not won over the most important voters — moderates in swing states. A New York Times/Siena College survey of voters in Arizona, Florida, Michigan, North Carolina, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin found that just 43% want to impeach and remove Trump from office, while 53% do not. Pushing impeachment makes Democrats vulnerable in precisely the states they cannot afford to lose in 2020.
Third, there is little prospect these numbers will turn around, even after a series of high-profile hearings.
I’ve been traveling pretty constantly since this impeachment thing got going. I’ve been to a bunch of blue states and a bunch of red states (including Kansas, Missouri, North Carolina, Tennessee, Texas and Utah). In coastal blue states, impeachment comes up in conversation all the time. In red states, it never comes up; ask people in red states if they’ve been talking about it with their friends, they shrug and reply no, not really.
Professor Paul Sracic of Youngstown State University in Ohio told Ken Stern from Vanity Fair that when he asked his class of 80 students if they’d heard any conversation about impeachment, only two said they had. When he asked if impeachment interested them, all 80 said it did not.
That’s exactly what I’ve found, too. For most, impeachment is not a priority. It’s a dull background noise — people in Washington and the national media doing the nonsense they always do. A pollster can ask Americans if they support impeachment, and some yes or no answer will be given, but the fundamental reality is that many Americans are indifferent.
Fourth, it’s a lot harder to do impeachment in an age of cynicism, exhaustion and distrust. During Watergate, voters trusted federal institutions and granted the impeachment process a measure of legitimacy. Today’s voters do not share that trust and will not regard an intra-Washington process as legitimate.
Many Americans don’t care about impeachment because they take it as a given that this is the kind of corruption that politicians of all stripes have been doing all along. Many don’t care because it looks like the same partisan warfare that’s been going on forever, just with a different name.
Fifth, it’s harder to do impeachment when politics is seen as an existential war for the future of the country. Many Republicans know Trump is guilty, but they can’t afford to hand power to Nancy Pelosi, Elizabeth Warren or Bernie Sanders.
Progressives, let me ask you a question: If Trump-style Republicans were trying to impeach a President Biden, Warren or Sanders, and there was evidence of guilt, would you vote to convict? Answer honestly.
I get that Democrats feel they have to proceed with impeachment to protect the Constitution and the rule of law. But there is little chance they will come close to ousting the president. So I hope they set a Thanksgiving deadline. Play the impeachment card through November, have the House vote and then move on to other things. The Senate can quickly dispose of the matter and Democratic candidates can make their best pitches for denying Trump reelection.
Elizabeth Bruenig of The Washington Post put her finger on something important in a recent essay on Trump’s evangelical voters: the assumption of decline. Many Trump voters take it as a matter of course that for the rest of their lives things are going to get worse for them — economically, spiritually, politically and culturally. They are not the only voters who think this way. Many young voters in their OK Boomer T-shirts feel exactly the same, except about climate change, employment prospects and debt.
This sense of elite negligence in the face of national decline is the core issue right now. Impeachment is a distraction from that. As quickly as possible, it’s time to move on.
David Brooks is an Op-Ed columnist for The New York Times.