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What We Learned From The First House Vote On Impeachment

Today’s House vote to formalize the impeachment process, spelling out its rules and procedures, isn’t the impeachment vote. That vote — on whether to make Donald Trump only the third-ever president1 to be impeached — will likely come later, after the House holds public hearings. But Thursday’s vote still told us a lot about how the House impeachment is likely to play out.

Simply put, it’s a good bet that not much will change no matter what happens in the hearings. That’s both because Americans’ views on the president are very partisan (basically Republicans almost universally support him but a majority of country does not), and because many of the most damning details about President Trump and his administration’s dealings with Ukraine have probably already come out in the last month. The resolution on Thursday passed 232-196, with two Democrats and no Republicans breaking ranks, and it’s just hard to imagine many members switching sides.

So House Democrats didn’t just ramp up the impeachment process on Thursday. They put themselves on a course that almost certainly ends with a vote impeaching the president and imploring the Senate to remove him from office. With the major implications of this first step in mind, here’s what we learned from today’s vote:

Republicans are already unified behind Trump — unlike in past impeachment processes

In 1974, basically the entire House voted in favor of starting the impeachment process against President Richard Nixon. Literally. It was a 410-4 vote. The vote to start an inquiry against President Bill Clinton in 1998 wasn’t quite as bipartisan, but Clinton still saw 31 Democrats break with him and support an impeachment investigation.2

But none of the 194 House Republicans who voted on Thursday’s resolution to formalize the impeachment investigation of Trump cast a “yes” vote. This was not at all surprising. There’s that entrenched partisanship I mentioned earlier, and Trump’s popularity with the GOP base (and the fear that he’ll support a primary challenger against Republicans who break with him, as he’s done in the past). But additionally, many more moderate Republicans and those in closely contested districts lost reelection last year, so there aren’t a lot of Republicans left in the House who are ideologically opposed to the president or might feel electoral pressure to break with him. Only three remain in districts Hillary Clinton won in 2016: Brian Fitzpatrick of Pennsylvania, Will Hurd of Texas and John Katko of New York. All three voted against the inquiry:

I thought that perhaps one of the 19 House Republicans who are retiring after 2020 might support the impeachment investigation, since they don’t have to worry about a primary challenge or reelection. But those members still might want to run for another office as Republicans or join GOP-connected lobbying shops or conservative organizations, so they could still have reasons to maintain a reputation as Trump loyalists. There also just weren’t a lot of political incentives for House Republicans to vote “yes.” (And electoral considerations aside, surely some of the 197 House Republicans either don’t think Trump did anything wrong or don’t think it’s worthy of impeachment.) The fact that Rep. Justin Amash of Michigan, who left the GOP in July to become an independent, voted for the resolution illustrates, I think, that no one who aspires to remain in GOP politics could vote in favor of it.

For those who want to see Trump leave office, this unified Republican support of the president is another sign that he probably isn’t going anywhere — at least until the 2020 elections. It’s doubtful that Trump’s removal from office (supported by nearly half the country) will become more broadly popular as long as Republican elected officials are opposed to it and keep telling GOP-leaning voters that the president is being unfairly investigated. And a unified Republican vote against even having an investigation is likely to lead to a unified vote against impeachment itself. (Although I don’t want to rule out completely a handful of members voting for impeachment if some even worse evidence against Trump comes out.) With that kind of ironclad support for the president, how could even one Republican senator vote for his removal, never mind the 20 that would be required for the motion to pass?

Democrats are ready to spend 2020 as the pro-impeachment party, even in pro-Trump areas

Of the 31 Democrats who represent House districts that Trump won in 2016, all but two — Collin Peterson of Minnesota and Jeff Van Drew of New Jersey — voted in favor of the impeachment investigation. So did all the other House Democrats who participated in the vote. This wasn’t surprising either — I don’t think House Speaker Nancy Pelosi would have scheduled this vote unless most swing district members were on board. She is deeply concerned about boosting their reelection prospects.

I would expect nearly all these members to follow through and vote in favor of impeachment itself; just as with Republicans, the electoral incentives for Democrats are pretty clear-cut. First, support for impeachment is above 80 percent among Democrats. Thus, even in a Trump-leaning district, it’s very likely that the majority of Democrats there favor impeachment. So a Democratic House member voting against impeachment would risk irritating the core activists, donors, volunteers and liberal voters that she needs to win reelection. Secondly, no matter how strong an argument she makes, a member who votes for an impeachment investigation but against impeaching Trump runs the risks of annoying both Democrats and Republicans in her district, satisfying no one.

Leaning into impeachment is a risk for House Democrats. There’s a scenario — unlikely but possible — in which the Democratic presidential nominee loses key states in the Midwest and is defeated while the party keeps control of the House by winning suburban districts in blue states like California. This scenario, pre-impeachment, could have involved some House Democrats distancing themselves from the party’s nominee and casting themselves as able to work with Trump. But you probably can’t run on being able to work with Trump after you’ve voted to impeach him.

In 2018, the House Democrats campaigned against Republicans’ unpopular Obamacare repeal bill more than against Trump himself. But impeachment puts Trump, the person, even more at the forefront of the 2020 campaign — even for House Democrats not technically running against him.


All in all, I think Thursday’s vote is a pretty good representation of what we can expect from the House impeachment process: Party unity on both sides resulting in Trump’s impeachment. But just because the outcome seems clear doesn’t mean the process can’t be surprising. Remember the hearings on Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination to the Supreme Court ? Remember a group of House Republicans last week forcing themselves into a closed-door hearing being held by the House Intelligence Committee, bringing their cell phones into an area where phones are banned for security reasons? I think we are going to see even more over-the-top shenanigans in the next few months, particularly from House Republicans, who know they don’t have the votes to win this political fight.

Now that everyone knows that the impeachment process in the House is likely to end with a party-line vote that the Democrats win, the hearings aren’t really designed to affect the votes of members. They are really a performance for the press and the public. So I would not expect a sober, somber process.

Footnotes

  1. Along with Andrew Johnson in 1868 and Bill Clinton in 1998.

  2. Those inquiries eventually grew more partisan. In Nixon’s case, 10 of the 17 Republicans on the House Judiciary Committee voted against all three articles of impeachment (he resigned the full House could vote). And only five Democrats voted in favor of Clinton’s impeachment.

Perry Bacon Jr. is a senior writer for FiveThirtyEight.

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