With Donald Trump's second impeachment trial starting today, it's time for a quick look at the incentives involved for the various players and how they might play out.
First, it's extremely unlikely that the trial will have any effect on voters in 2022 or 2024 (except in the unlikely event that Trump will really be convicted and then disqualified from future office). Voters simply don't have long-term memories for most things. At most, some may shift their long-term evaluation of the Republican Party because of Trump's conduct between the 2020 election and the beginning of Joe Biden's presidency. But the Senate trial isn't likely to have much to do with that, no matter how the House managers (the prosecution) or Trump's lawyers handle it.
With that in mind:
President Joe Biden is already doing exactly what he should be doing: publicly ignoring the whole thing. Biden has enough on his plate without getting involved in something that he has no official role in anyway. It's not that voters will care whether Biden was focused on the pandemic and the economy; it's that the outcomes of his initiatives in those areas will matter. And the way to help himself right now is to portray his administration as narrowly focused. That's probably his best bet for passing his program through Congress while also pushing the federal bureaucracy, the states, private businesses and more in the direction he thinks is best.
Congressional Democrats — House managers and senators alike — can't choose Biden's option. They have a responsibility that they can't duck. But they have a few incentives of their own. One is to make sure that at least a few Republicans join them in voting to convict; that makes the vote seem less partisan and more like a patriotic defense of democracy, which is certainly how they'll (accurately!) portray it. They also have an institutional interest in defending Congress itself from the mob, and they don't want to be embarrassed by failing to elicit information that comes out after the trial. All of this calls for a slower process than they have planned. It would've been in their interest to either establish a special impeachment committee to gather information and hear from witnesses, or to take videotaped depositions from witnesses that could be excerpted during the trial, as was done during Bill Clinton's impeachment. Instead, they seem happy to rush things. I think it's a mistake.
Republican senators have different incentives. The Trumpiest ones are the easiest: They just want to vote "no" and move on. There are also a handful who seem perfectly happy to cast themselves as anti-Trump Republicans. The bulk, however, have one big objective. They want to stick together. That works if they vote to acquit, which, again, won't have much bearing on future elections. But it also works if they vote to convict, so long as they're unified. We don't really know how much clout Trump will have in Republican primaries in 2022, but there's no reason to think he'll put serious effort behind trying to take down more than a couple Republican senators. But I'll say again what I said before the last impeachment: We're not likely to have a close final vote. Seventeen Republicans are needed to join all 50 Democrats, and I'd be more surprised if the total is within five of that tally to either side than if some 25 or more Republicans wind up voting to convict.
Of course, by far the most likely outcome is that they stick together with "no" votes. Here, too, Republicans — at least those who are still committed to democracy and conservative public-policy choices — are making a mistake. They're way better off ridding themselves of Trump. And better to do it now, with plenty of distance to the midterms and even more before the presidential election, than allowing themselves to be bullied by him or held hostage at some point. Yet Trump's success has always been based on Republican politicians being more frightened of him than they have any reason to be, and that's not likely to change now. No matter what it costs the party in the future.
Bernstein is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering politics and policy. He taught political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University and wrote A Plain Blog About Politics.