Deciding whether or not to impeach and convict a president should always be difficult. Such a step should never be taken lightly.
In the case of Donald Trump’s second impeachment, the argument for conviction has been framed around justice and accountability. Trump incited an insurrection against the United States and, like any other serious law breaker, must be held to account. We don’t let others guilty of grave offenses off with a mere asterisk next to their names.
Opponents argue the primacy of building national unity and turning the page on Trump’s horrid presidency. Joe Biden has taken power, possessed of an indispensable agenda, which may require some measure of bipartisan cooperation to pass into law so our country can be rescued. They claim a divisive conviction would imperil some of Biden’s valuable legislative initiatives.
(Of course, Republicans also betray their alleged commitment to constitutional “originalism” by reinventing the text, history and meaning of the document on the spot, to suggest one cannot impeach a president no longer in office, but this is a wholly unprincipled argument.)
Both accountability and unity are important, but neither captures the most central issue at stake here: Are we willing to take, and indeed inflict, some pains, to enforce the laws and norms that protect our democracy.
Democracy will endure only if we regularly reestablish the primacy of the laws and norms on which it rests. Donald Trump undermined and removed the guardrails that safeguard our system.
He abused his office for personal financial gain, sowed hatred, lied to his constituents, invited foreign adversaries to sabotage our elections, and when that didn’t work, he attempted to subvert the electoral process personally. When it all failed to protect his personal political suzerainty, he finally incited violent insurrection.
Failing to convict Trump in the first impeachment, the Senate, perhaps unwittingly, told him and future presidents that the first several of these many infractions were somehow within bounds. Failing to convict him now would tell all future presidents exactly what Trump’s Senate supporters said after the first trial: these are not impeachable offenses.
And if these are not impeachable acts, not high crimes or misdemeanors, then a future president would truly have to shoot someone dead on Fifth Avenue to warrant impeachment.
Is that really the standard our country should set for itself?
It’s all too easy to sweep violations of democratic norms under the political rug.
Despite our collective professions of devotion to democracy, Yale political scientists Matthew Graham and Milan W. Svolik demonstrated that in reaching voting decisions in our hyper-polarized environment, the public weighs party loyalty, ideological proximity and issue positions more heavily than violations of democratic principles.
Moreover, they concluded voters employ a partisan double standard, with Republicans less inclined to punish their co-partisans for anti-democratic behavior than to punish Democrats for the exact same actions. Democratic voters too, would be less willing to punish candidates of their own party at the ballot box for violating democratic norms.
The central question in this impeachment is not whether Trump will receive his just punishment, or Biden will be given a clear playing field.
Rather it is whether the Senate will prioritize the future of democracy over the partisan interests of the moment. Whether senators will rebuild and reinforce the guardrails of our system, or, by their actions, tell future presidents that everything Trump did is fair play, as long as just over a third of the Senate is comprised of your party.
Our Founders predicted the Senate “will always be of the number of those who best understand our national interests … and whose reputation for integrity inspires and merits confidence.”
Because it implicates the future of American democracy, the vote on Donald J. Trump’s second impeachment will be a historic test of the Founders’ assessment.
Mellman is president of The Mellman Group and has helped elect 30 U.S. senators, 12 governors and dozens of House members. Mellman served as pollster to Senate Democratic leaders for over 20 years, as president of the American Association of Political Consultants, and is president of Democratic Majority for Israel.