BROOKE GLADSTONE From WNYC in New York, this is On The Media. I'm Brooke Gladstone.
BOB GARFIELD And I'm Bob Garfield. First dropped the Muller report and now the other shoe.
FEMALE CORRESPONDENT Woah, some Democrats starting to come around on impeachment in the wake of the Mueller Report.
KAMALA HARRIS I believe Congress should take the steps towards impeachment.
MALE CORRESPONDENT Do you think the House should move for impeachment?
PETE BUTTIGIEG I think he's made it pretty clear that he deserves impeachment. [END CLIP]
BOB GARFIELD Candidates Kamala Harris and Pete buttigieg there after being asked to weigh in at CNN Town Halls Monday. As I write there is still no consensus in the House of Representatives on whether to move on the issue with impeachment. Highly unlikely to yield a conviction in the Senate and a big election just around the corner, many in the leadership are downplaying impeachment talk on moral or political grounds or neither or both. Here's House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerry Nadler speaking with Chuck Todd on NBC's Meet the Press.
CHUCK TODD Why haven't you opened an impeachment inquiry or in fairness is that what you're doing right now.
JERRY NADLER I don't think we're doing that. We may get to that we may not. As I said before, it is our job to go--to go through all the evidence to--to all the information--.
CHUCK TODD Do the politics impact this though?
JERRY NADLER --and to--and to--.
CHUCK TODD How much does the politics matter?
JERRY NADLER --and to go where the evidence leads us. I'm sorry?
CHUCK TODD How much does the politics impact this? You have a legal case that you believe this happens and you should do it. But the politics dictate something else. How much is that going to influence this decision?
JERRY NADLER I don't know. That--that'll come down the road when--when we see--.
CHUCK TODD Is it in Nancy Pelosi's hands? [END CLIP]
BOB GARFIELD For those who have been closely following the slow drip of evidence accumulating for more than two years and vindicated in their horror of Trump by the Mueller report, let's see what happens is not exactly a rallying cry. As those doing the political math come up with different answers, many citizens are sensing yet another episode of thwarted justice–and not for the first time in recent years. Paul Waldman is a columnist and senior writer for the American Prospect. He cites the Clinton impeachment as kind of cautionary tale for the Democratic leadership.
PAUL WALDMAN Yeah, I think that there are some people in the Democratic Party who may have learned the lessons of the Clinton impeachment a little too well. The story that we tell about that is that the Republicans impeach Clinton and the American people punish the Republican Party for doing this kind of partisan process that wasn't good for the country. The problem is that there are a lot of differences between that situation and this one. So for instance Clinton was extremely popular. He had approval ratings, in some cases, over 70 percent. Trump is extremely unpopular. His approval rating is around 40 percent. Also the conduct in question there was really rooted in an affair that Clinton had with Monica Lewinsky and he lied about it in a deposition. But after a year of constant discussion, the conclusion that the American people essentially came to was that he was kind of scummy but it didn't merit removing him from office. We don't know if the American public debated it for a year, what conclusion they would come to about Trump but the allegations at least relate much more closely to his conduct in office. So however, a Trump impeachment might end up, it's unlikely it would work out exactly like the Clinton impeachment did.
BOB GARFIELD Should these decisions necessarily be based on political pragmatism to begin with versus say just pure accountability?
PAUL WALDMAN If Donald Trump deserves to be impeached then Donald Trump should be impeached. Now of course we can't ignore the political considerations but there's a strong case to be made that the process itself is a way of making a statement, of saying that it's not acceptable for a presidential candidate to accept the aid of a hostile foreign power. It's not acceptable for him to attempt to obstruct justice, even if in many cases his aides prevented him from carrying out the obstructive act. Throughout the Trump administration, there's been such a deluge of misdeeds and norms being broken and rules being ignored that sometimes we just decide that this thing is not worth fighting about because there are so many other things that are going wrong. But ultimately, at some point, you have to stand up and make a defense of the system itself.
BOB GARFIELD The GOP has been working for a long time to cultivate a certain narrative about a rigged system and political bias, a deep state. An impeachment by the Democrats will be just the smoking gun they're looking for to prove, 'yep, he's just being set up for purely partisan reasons.'
PAUL WALDMAN A lot of people spend a lot of time worrying about what will make Trump voters angry. Looking at what they see on Fox News or here on Rush Limbaugh and other conservative talk radio makes them very very gun shy because they say if we awaken this beast we'll get another version of 2016.
RUSH LIMBAUGH Democrats are being driven mad. They're operating from a contrived conspiracy born and supported by fake news. And they can't give it up for whatever reasons. [END CLIP]
PAUL WALDMAN The problem is that they have a remarkable ability within that conservative media system to create controversy out of anything. The biggest issue in the 2016 election was whether Hillary Clinton used the wrong email. The idea that you could avoid the wrath of the Trump supporters by not going down the road of impeachment but say investigating him in other ways, I just don't think that bears out.
BOB GARFIELD Hearings in the House would force the GOP to line up behind Trump in the face of what will be just a litany of damning evidence. Doesn't that argue for going ahead with proceedings?
PAUL WALDMAN Yeah, I think it would. Events in politics can have a power that things like a 500 page document doesn't necessarily have. You know, if you tuned into FOX during the time after the Mueller report was issued, you would have learned that it was a complete and total exoneration. But if you have an actual event that there are cameras stuck in front of, it's much harder to get people not to see what's actually happening there. Key moments in the Watergate hearings helped turn the public against Richard Nixon. It was Howard Baker saying--
HOWARD BAKER What did the president know And when did he know it. [END CLIP]
PAUL WALDMAN It was John Dean--.
JOHN DEAN We have a cancer within–close to the presidency, that's growing. It's growing daily. It's compounding. It grows geometrically now. [END CLIP]
PAUL WALDMAN Democrats might reasonably think that if we actually hold impeachment hearings there will be similar moments that will be impossible for Trump to spin away.
BOB GARFIELD The other day that an MSNBC program and the guest before me was Democratic Congressman Sean Maloney.
SEAN MALONEY Winning the next election which is the best way to replace this president, and the most efficient one frankly, And that's where I'm focused [END CLIP].
BOB GARFIELD And I watched the social media reaction to that argument and it was scorching. Some parts of the public just do not want to take no impeachment for an answer. Is there, in the political ether, a sentiment of thwarted justice that at this moment makes political restraint seem like cowardice and impunity?
PAUL WALDMAN There's a feeling that the Republicans have been so effective at rigging the system that you can't rely on the system. You know, in two of the last five elections the Democrat got more votes yet the Republican wound up in the Oval Office. You have the Republicans refusing to allow Barack Obama's Supreme Court nominee to be considered. You've got Republicans in states all across the country aggressively gerrymandering, who are passing voter suppression laws that make it more difficult for especially African-Americans to get to the polls or to be registered. You've got a Supreme Court that is probably going to allow the Trump administration on false pretenses to add a citizenship question to the census. And so Democrats, I think, don't even trust that the system will work in a fair way and deliver them a fair outcome.
BOB GARFIELD The Democratic leadership at least seems to believe in a political penalty for a fruitless impeachment effort but an actual electoral benefit for deliberation and restraint. Clearly the GOP has looked at the same data and they've come to an entirely different calculus. Why do they read the political tea leaves so differently?
PAUL WALDMAN It may partly have its roots in the two parties approaches to government. Democrats are the party that believes in government. They want government to work and so desire, from a substantive standpoint, to be the party that makes government work gets assimilated as a feeling that the public is going to see that we're the responsible ones and they will eventually reward us for that. Republicans the party that thinks that government can't do anything right and when government is dysfunctional that's actually OK with them because it makes their argument for them. You'll notice Republicans don't spend much time or energy worrying about how they can appeal to Democrats. You know, Democrats are always wondering how can we get that guy in the Make America Great Again hat sitting in a diner in Ohio. Part of this also is that we live in an age of intense polarization. There are so few independent voters who are going to be persuaded one way or another that the most important thing is whether your side is energized, angry even, and whether the other side is more passive.
BOB GARFIELD If you have taken an oath of office to preserve and protect the Constitution, is this even a choice?
PAUL WALDMAN The thing about the Constitution is that it's pretty vague. You know, it doesn't define what high crimes and misdemeanors are. It's just a few words. And we have to keep figuring out, as history precedes, what we think those words mean. That means that all of us can decide that whatever we think is going to be most politically advantageous is also the thing that is most morally right and the thing it is demanded by the Constitution.
BOB GARFIELD Paul, thank you very much.
PAUL WALDMAN My pleasure.
BOB GARFIELD Paul Waldman is an opinion writer for The Washington Post's Plum Line blog.