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No national catharsis on impeachment

House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerry Nadler, with House

House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerry Nadler, with House Oversight and Reform Committee Chairwoman Carolyn Maloney (R) and House Financial Services Committee Chairwoman Maxine Waters (L), delivers remarks during a press conference to unveil two articles of impeachment, charging President Donald J.Trump with abuse of power and obstruction of Congress, on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC on Tuesday. Credit: SHAWN THEW/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock/SHAWN THEW/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock

Among Democrats who have called most loudly for President Donald Trump's impeachment, there has been a theory — it might be more accurate to call it a hope — that all of this would play out the way Watergate did 45 years ago.

Backlash against President Richard Nixon was slow in building as evidence accumulated about his 1972 presidential campaign's efforts to bug Democratic National Committee headquarters and, more damaging, his subsequent efforts to cover it up.

Not until the House Judiciary Committee approved three articles of impeachment against Nixon in July 1974 did a clear majority of Americans come around to wanting him removed from office. In that single critical two-week period, the Supreme Court ordered Nixon to turn over his White House tapes and Republicans finally broke from their president. Nixon soon resigned.

Once again, the Judiciary Committee stands on the verge of taking a historic vote to recommend the impeachment of a president. But this time, there will be no such national catharsis.

The two impeachment articles now before the committee almost certainly will pass the House next week on a party-line vote. From there, they will go to the Senate, where the outcome is just as preordained. The Republican majority there will acquit him, and Trump will claim it as an exoneration.

"To Impeach a President who has proven through results, including producing perhaps the strongest economy in our country's history, to have one of the most successful presidencies ever, and most importantly, who has done NOTHING wrong, is sheer Political Madness! #2020Election," Trump crowed in a tweet on Tuesday.

If impeaching the president is madness, it says more about the state of our politics than it does about the merits of the case against Trump. The articles of impeachment that Democratic members of the Judiciary Committee drew up are narrow, precise and backed by the evidence.

But, nationally, the divisions are deep and all but unbreachable, and may be even more so when all of this is over. At a meeting with columnists in late October, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) was asked whether there might come a moment when the public coalesces behind Trump's impeachment as it had with Nixon. No, she said, "we're not in a 70% country anymore."

Opinion in favor of impeachment jumped sharply after a whistleblower brought to light the now-infamous July 25 phone call, during which Trump pressured Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky for two things: political ammunition to use against former vice president Joe Biden, and help in pushing a wacky conspiracy theory that contradicted the U.S. intelligence community's conclusion that Russia interfered with the 2016 presidential election.

Trump requested this as "a favor" at a time when his administration was holding up badly needed security assistance to Ukraine.

For the first time, polls showed that roughly half the public believed not only that Trump should be impeached but also that he should be removed from office. Americans felt a degree of revulsion they had never shown about the results of special counsel Robert Mueller's two-year Russia investigation, the question of whether Trump is using his office to enrich himself or the deficiencies of his character.

But then, the numbers froze, not to be budged even by the dramatic testimony of a parade of witnesses who corroborated the whistleblower's account before the House Intelligence Committee. And, in the meantime, the suddenly real prospect of impeachment has been rallying the president's base and could work to his benefit in critical states such as Wisconsin.

It was not just a coincidence that, within an hour of unveiling the impeachment articles, House Democrats announced that they will support one of the president's top priorities, a new North American trade deal — albeit a version they claim includes big concessions such as new protections for workers' rights that had been sought by organized labor.

Look for more significant legislative action as the House moves toward an impeachment vote, including passage of a bill to lower the price of prescription drugs by allowing Medicare to negotiate with pharmaceutical firms. Trump would do well to seriously engage the Democrats on this issue, which is high on the list of voter priorities.

Democrats will also provide authorization for Pentagon operations in 2020, having won paid family leave for federal workers in exchange for indulging Trump's fanciful idea of a space force.

These other issues are what Democrats want to be talking about as they move into an election year. They promise a way to bring people together. Impeachment does not. Holding Trump accountable for how he has abused the power of his office is a historic step. Building a consensus around it is an impossible one.

Karen Tumulty is a Washington Post columnist covering national politics.