Ben Roback is Head of Trade and International Policy at Cicero Group.
Readers of this website will relish the chance to talk about politics around the family dinner table this Christmas. Talk of a ‘stonking majority’ will ebb and flow with requests for more red wine and to pass the cranberry sauce. There will be perhaps less enthusiasm across the pond.
Before Thanksgiving in 2017, an NPR/PBS poll revealed that 58 per cent of Americans were “dreading” talking about politics at their family dinner. A Fox News columnist event went as far as writing a guide to talking about politics at your gathering, with tips including ‘refuse to be baited’ and ‘admit it when you’re wrong or have overstated your case’.
Fast forward two years and the political temperature has hardly cooled in a country increasingly divided by impeachment. In many ways, politics has become so ubiquitous that it is impossible to escape – an ever-present form of reality television that stretches the definition of the word entertainment.
Daily dramas play out on TV screens and Twitter timelines, populated by a cast of characters including Donald Trump, Nancy Pelosi, Joe Biden, Mike Pence, the anonymous whistle-blower at the centre of the Ukraine scandal, the Kushners, and the First Lady. The main backdrop is often the White House; it’s like The Crown, but with more palace intrigue.
The President has shown no sign of festive politeness or restraint when expressing his feelings on the impeachment proceedings. In a six-page letter (in full here) to Speaker Pelosi, Trump lashed out while accusing her of declaring ‘open war on American democracy’. “You and your party are desperate to distract from America’s extraordinary economy, incredible jobs boom, record stock market, soaring confidence, and flourishing citizens,” the President wrote.
Refusing to acknowledge any suggestion of wrongdoing, he instead considers the impeachment inquiry an irritating political distraction that threatens his pro-jobs, pro-security agenda going into the 2020 general election.
Impeachment: what next?
And so, it is impeachment that is likely to be the dominant topic when the conversation turns to politics around Christmas dinner tables this December.
The impeachment charges against the President are twofold: obstruction of Congress; and using the Office of the President to pressure the Ukrainian President into investigating Democratic presidential rival Biden.
The House of Representatives, the lower legislative chamber, will today hold a vote on impeaching the President. Given the Democratic majority in the House, it is expected to pass with the required 51 per cent simple majority. That would in turn lead to a trial of the President in the Senate, the upper chamber, where Senators from both parties act as independent jurors.
Given the Republican majority in the Senate, the trial that could see the President removed from office is expected to fail, as it requires a two thirds majority. However, total GOP loyalty in the Senate is far from guaranteed. A small handful of Republican Senators have worked hard to avoid declaring a position on impeachment. These include Lamar Alexander (Tennessee), who is retiring and therefore less bound by party loyalty; Pat Roberts (Kansas) and Mike Enzi (Wyoming), who are retiring committee chairmen and therefore less bound by their party shackles than before; and Mitt Romney (Utah), who is an outright and vocal critic of the President.
There is no evidence of sufficient wavering Republicans to threaten the President’s position. At least 20 Republican senators would be needed to reach the 67-vote threshold required remove Trump from office.
Crucially though, if a handful of Republicans defect on a vote-by-vote basis, they could gift Democrats the 51-vote simple majority needed in the Senate to win on key votes relating to the process of the inquiry, namely, compelling certain witnesses to give evidence and demanding the open publication of key documents. Republicans hold a 53-47 seat majority, meaning just four Republicans voting with Democrats could have a major impact in the impeachment inquiry process.
Trump is set to be the third president in history to be impeached, despite an assumed verdict of innocence in the Senate. For Democrats, that provides ample ammunition to rally against the President’s character and track record in the 2020 election. For the President and Republicans, it will be presented as evidence of the ‘do-nothing Democrats’ seeking to put party politics ahead of the national interest. While Democrats talk about impeachment and scandals, Republican will focus on USMCA (the renegotiated NAFTA trade agreement), job growth, and a flourishing stock market. The dividing lines could hardly be clearer.
Impeachment is failing to hurt Trump’s approval ratings
Americans are split on a knife edge in their support for impeachment: 47.1 per cent support impeaching the President whilst 46.4 per cent do not, according to FiveThirtyEight.
Trump is joined by Bill Clinton and Richard Nixon in the hall of presidents that have faced the threat of impeachment in recent history. A comparison of their polling positions provides a useful context to this inquiry.
Nixon faced public hearings around the Watergate scandal that eventually led to his impeachment. Presidential advisor John Dean’s testimony in June 1973 was seen by many as a tipping point in the process. Nixon had a 44 per cent approval rating prior to Dean’s testimony, dropping to 39 per cent a month afterwards.
Bill Clinton faced several weeks of public impeachment hearings, with the critical testimony of Special Counsel Ken Starr portraying the President in a negative light in November 1998. Clinton had a 66 per cent approval rating prior to the testimony with it rising to 73 per cent a month later.
Trump’s public impeachment hearings began in November, with the testimony provided by Gordon Sondland, the EU ambassador, labelled as a seminal ‘John Dean’ moment. Trump headed into this testimony with a 43 per cent approval rating, and it currently remains there.
The direction of the President’s approval ratings in the next month may signal whether he is heading in the positive direction of Clinton or towards the demise of Nixon. Either way, whether eating Christmas turkey or Chanukah doughnuts, the ubiquity of politics in contemporary American life means impeachment will be hard to ignore around dinner tables this December.