Impeachment inquiry hardening political lines in Washington, expert says
Pressure from members of his own Republican Party was the turning point in President Richard Nixon’s decision to resign on Aug. 8, 1974. Nobody knows what will happen from here as President Donald Trump faces his own potential impeachment, but Furman William R. Kenan, Jr. Professor of Politics & International Affairs Jim Guth is confident about one thing: There will be nothing approaching that level of bipartisanship.
“Whatever articles are introduced and voted on will pass with a partisan majority,” he said. “I doubt that there will be more than one or two Republicans who will vote in favor of the articles of impeachment, and I think there may be just one or two Democrats who might vote against it.”
Democrats hold a 233-197 advantage in the U.S. House of Representatives, with one independent. A simple majority vote is required to advance articles of impeachment to the Senate for trial.
Nixon faced impeachment for crimes he committed trying to cover up the Watergate break-in, and while Republicans initially supported and defended him, they also were part of an overwhelming 410-4 House vote in favor of launching a formal impeachment inquiry. After the investigation, multiple Republicans on the Judiciary Committee then voted to advance articles of impeachment to a full House vote.
Nixon decided to leave office after being convinced enough Senate Republicans would also vote to convict him. Such a scenario seems inconceivable after last week’s public hearings into whether Trump withheld military aid and a White House meeting from Ukraine in order to coerce the country into investigating a political rival.
Democrats appear united in pursuing articles of impeachment, but testimony from 12 witnesses persuaded no Republican to indicate he or she would support the move, and some senators, including Lindsay Graham from South Carolina, declared they would vote to acquit Trump even before evidence was presented.
Guth, who specializes in American politics, arrived at Furman in 1973 and has witnessed three of the country’s four impeachment inquiries in his professional life. Partisanship grew increasingly rigid during that time.
“That’s one of the things that’s really different from the 1970s when Nixon was in office and even to a certain extent the 1990s (when President Bill Clinton was impeached),” Guth said. “Today, the scholars who look at voting in Congress argue, and I think they’re right, that there is literally no overlap in Congress in either house, but especially in the House of Representatives. The most liberal Republican is far to the right of the most conservative Democrat. There’s a big gap between the parties, and in this situation almost everything becomes a matter of party loyalty and supporting your party’s position.”
Another change Guth has noted is an increasing ignorance about how government functions, which he attributes in part to a de-emphasis on educational requirements.
“It’s quite clear students are no longer exposed as much as a matter of routine curriculum to government and government processes, and Americans as time goes on seem to know less and less about their political system,” Guth said. “We even have some studies of college students that show that they know less than grade-school educated people in the 1930s did. That’s a remarkable lack of any kind of information about the way the political system works generally, and I think that is part of what goes into the desire just to not pay attention or to just avoid all of the information that’s coming at them from all sides on the impeachment question.”
The contrast in campus reaction to the potential impeachments of Nixon and Trump is striking, Guth notes.
“One of the remarkable things right now is I think students are kind of reflecting the national mood,” Guth said. “Most students just don’t want to hear about it and don’t want to pay much attention to it, and this is very different than the Nixon case where everybody was very interested in what was going on and you had lots of discussion.”
Americans today are also exposed to a constant deluge of information from multiple media sources, which is a situation that didn’t exist especially during the Nixon impeachment. That also causes people to disengage, Guth says.
“We have so many differing, conflicting narratives now about what all of this means and such a diversity – almost a cacophony – of voices telling people what they ought to think about it,” Guth said. “And we know from experimental studies in news consumption that when you have strong opinions on two different sides being presented, the public often has a tendency to tune out. The average citizen says, ‘I just can’t know which of these things is right, so I’m just not going to listen anymore. It’s too mentally taxing.’ I think there’s a good bit of that happening right now.”
Still, he thinks his students should be focused on a pivotal moment in American history. Should the House decide vote to advance charges against the president, the next step would be a trial in the Senate.
House members would act as prosecutors and senators as jurors, with the chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, John Roberts, presiding. A two-thirds majority vote is required to convict and remove a president, which has never happened.
Republicans hold a 53-47 advantage in the Senate, with two independents. Guth thinks persuading at least 20 Republicans to vote for conviction is highly unlikely, but he doesn’t completely rule it out.
“A lot of Republican senators, although they have become increasingly conservative, still have a little bit broader of a perspective because they’re elected from big state constituencies instead of narrow House constituencies, and it’s been quite noticeable that most of the Republican senators have been cautious about making any statements on impeachment,” Guth said. “(So) it is conceivable there may be something that will be revealed in the next few days or weeks that might prompt a few of them to reconsider their party position.”