A new year, a new Congress. And an historic one in terms of diversity. Record numbers of women were elected to serve at November’s midterm elections, including the first Muslim and Native American congresswomen, and Jared Polis became the first openly gay man elected as a state governor.
A gain of 40 seats was enough to give the Democrats a decent working majority in the House of Representatives, granting the ability to pursue a different legislative agenda and offer stronger scrutiny of President’s Trump administration.
This has been evident in the political wrangling over funding for Trump’s wall on the Mexican border and subsequent partial shutdown of the federal government.
However, the “Blue Wave” that some were suggesting would carry the Democrats to a landslide in the House, and potentially even a slim majority in the Senate, failed to materialise.
Since 1946, the party of an incumbent president has, on average, lost 25 seats, with just two making net gains – Bill Clinton in 1998 (despite the prospect of impeachment being an issue during that election) and George W. Bush in 2002.
Reinforcing the notion that midterms are a referendum on whoever occupies the Oval Office at that point, losses are more pronounced when the president has an approval rating below 50% – 37 seats on average – whilst the average loss among those whose ratings are above 50% is 14.
Therefore, I’d venture to say that whilst the losses Republicans suffered in November will have hurt, the overall result certainly wasn’t the damning indictment of Trump the liberals had hoped for. Both Clinton and Obama suffered far more significant setbacks – 52 in 1994 and 63 in 2010 respectively – before each went on to win second terms with relative comfort. Therefore, it would be a mistake to assume that Trump is on his way to becoming a one-term president.
The issue at hand is how the Democrats choose to flex their new found muscles in Congress.
They deliberately avoided referencing impeachment during the campaign, which made it difficult for Republicans to sell it as a credible threat. However, with the House secured, the party leadership is under a degree of pressure to initiate impeachment proceedings.
Rashida Tlaib, a “freshman” congresswoman, declared after she was sworn in that Democrats are “going to impeach the motherf****r”, and Brad Sherman, a Democrat representing California’s 30th district, has already filed articles of impeachment.
And, Tom Steyer, a major donor who spent $120 million on the Democrats during the campaign, wrote a piece for the The New York Times, published two days after the election, calling for articles of impeachment to be brought as soon the new Congress convened.
This rhetoric certainly isn’t out of step with the general mood amongst the Democrat base. According to a CNN poll conducted on the eve of the election, 77% of self-identified Democrats wanted to see Trump impeached.
However, Pelosi, supported by other senior party members, has maintained the line that she is not interested in pursuing impeachment at this time. Her reasoning is sound.
No US president has been removed via impeachment (admittedly, Richard Nixon probably would have been but jumped before he was pushed) and, frankly, it’s a move that would be unlikely to benefit the Democrats, however tempting it might be.
Think back to the impeachment of Clinton in 1998/99. The issue leading to impeachment – Clinton’s obfuscation about his relationship with Monica Lewinsky – and the subsequent charges of perjury and obstruction of justice dominated the political agenda for months. In spite of this, the Republican controlled Senate failed to pass the articles by the required two-thirds vote.
The commonly held view was that Clinton’s behaviour was an indiscretion but did not warrant being removed from office. Indeed, on the day that articles of impeachment were put before the House, he had public approval ratings of 73%.
While Trump’s approval ratings are far lower than that and despite the perception that impeachable offences have been committed, there is, as yet, nothing concrete.
As a result, it’s probable that a similar situation to 1998 would arise were the Democrats to push ahead with impeachment. Articles would be passed by the Democrat controlled House before being voted down in the GOP controlled Senate (at least 20 Republican senators would have to support removing Trump from office) with unnecessary political capital expended and time wasted.
Of course, the Mueller investigation could yet uncover a smoking gun, with it rumoured to report in mid-to-late February. But that aside, Trump is in poll position to win another four years in 2020. The economy is strong, he has the benefit of incumbency, and there’s currently no clear Democrat frontrunner.
The overriding priority of the Democrats should be to use their majority in the House to check the president, address the key issues affecting voters, and show they can govern – thereby laying the foundations to retake the White House in two years’ time.
That would be the more legitimate (and satisfying) way to remove Trump from power.
Adam Shaw is an associate partner at Charlotte Street Partners.