Impeachment is quintessentially a political process – as the swarming hordes on both sides of the aisle remind us ad nauseam. It’s become a national legal pageant as well, performed by a cascading convergence of Washington lawyers now involved in every aspect of the unfolding drama.
Impeachment’s most important function, however, is not merely political or even legal, but rather it serves as a vehicle for national catharsis – filling a need that bubbles up at exactly the time faith in our major institutions is melting down.
Impeachment allows us to express the fury, resentment, and angst of national crisis at a time when the system offers no other way to do it. And it achieves this without long-term damage to the basic tenets of democracy. Impeachment is our national steam valve, a veritable escape hatch for volatile and explosive political forces we are not yet ready to confront.
This is not an argument that impeachment carries no political consequences or legal implications. Its political consequences are profound while its legal implications are enshrined in the very framework of the Constitution’s system of checks and balances as well as the separation of powers.
But impeachment is much more than a political process wrapped in a legal framework. It is a unique mechanism allowing us to work through seemingly insoluble issues that confront us without actually making them worse. The Constitution’s impeachment provisions, originally designed to be a critical bulwark against tyranny, have become a much-needed coping mechanism.
We know it because we have impeached two presidents, and we removed neither of them from office. (A third, Richard Nixon, resigned before he would have been impeached, which would have been followed by almost certain conviction in the Senate.)
Paraphrasing Shakespeare, we can say that impeachment “struts and frets [its] hour upon the stage and then is heard no more: it is a tale… full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”
Well, maybe not quite signifying nothing. But the fiction that action is really being taken is actually helpful. No, it’s not what the Constitution anticipated, it’s not what our politicians pretend they are doing, and it’s not what the public thinks is happening. Nonetheless, it serves a crucial role.
When it comes to impeachment, the House proposes and the Senate disposes – and its disposition has always been the same. Those same “not guilty” words likely will be spoken again for Trump in 2019 or early 2020.
Historically, the Senate eschews removing a president. That is not going to change. The current impeachment process will not end Trump’s presidency. Future impeachments, if any, seem unlikely to disrupt that pattern.
Should we then amend the Constitution, perhaps abolish impeachment and seek other remedies for controversial presidential behavior? We could. There are alternatives to impeachment. Recall is used in a few states for governors and other officials; shorter terms address the same purpose; and the 25th Amendment was aimed in that direction.
Censure is an option, one supposes. But, jettisoning impeachment would remove a safety valve that has served us, not perfectly, but well enough.
A more realistic goal is to realize what impeachment is — and is not — in our political system, and to cherish its strengths while being aware of its limits. Donald Trump will not be removed, barring something highly unusual, by the current process just as Bill Clinton and Andrew Johnson were not removed. But the country will be galvanized by the process for the increasingly urgent and rapidly approaching 2020 election.
And that 2020 election will cast Trump’s fate just as the nation’s previous 58 presidential elections have done. In a democracy, presidents are chosen by the people in an election; if removed, that should also happen by election. Impeachment can facilitate that process. It can’t replace it.