This piece was originally published in The Hill on February 4, 2020.
Since the start of the impeachment process, one of the prevalent Republican talking points is that the upcoming election renders impeachment a futile exercise. Pat Cipollone, one of the president’s lawyers, concluded day 6 of the impeachment trial by saying: “At the end of the day, the most important thought is this: this choice belongs to the American people. They will get to make it months from now.” This reasoning was echoed by Lamar Alexander last week when he announced that he wouldn’t be supporting the call for more witnesses.
This rhetoric is effective in that it vividly taps into the most basic democratic principle: popular sovereignty.
This is why Democrats must refuse to surrender to the president’s inevitable grandstanding about total exoneration, thanks to his acquittal. Instead, Democrats should co-opt the Republicans’ catchiest talking point and make the 2020 election the centerpiece of their post-game impeachment talk.
Granted, there’s something absurd about this pivot since there was something absurd about the GOP argument in the first place. The impeachment was about the 2020 election. Trump stood accused of undermining the sanctity of the election process by soliciting Ukrainian interference in the 2020 election.
Professor Pamela S. Karlan stated the implications of this charge clearly in her congressional testimony: “Having foreign interference in our election means that we are less free. It is less We The People who are determining who’s the next winner than it is a foreign government.” In other words, Trump’s deal with Ukraine was an attack on our right to choose our leaders and decide our collective fate. As Soren J. Schmidt put it, “The solution to election corruption cannot be a corrupt election.”
Given all this, it is, of course, shameful and alarming that the Senators didn’t remove Trump from office. But their failure to do so doesn’t mean that impeachment was a big waste of time.
The impeachment process — stymied though it was — brought to light plenty of information that is essential to voters. As Danielle Allen put it back in December, “regardless of what happens with the impeachment, we are getting a much-needed civics lesson.”
The investigation in the House brought forward an impressive array of public servants and experts who understood the stakes of the presidents’ actions and were able to convey the seriousness of events in Ukraine with real power to the public. The hearings offered everyone a crystal-clear window into the president’s mobster-like mode of operation. And they prompted others, like Lev Parnas and John Bolton, each to come forward in their ways.
Getting the truth out to the public has always been a more realistic goal than ousting the president, and in that sense, the process was a success. Public opinion about presidential removal may not have shifted, but it remained high and steady throughout the process. Furthermore, information dissemination will likely go on, unabated, in the coming months. The disclosures will continue to be of interest to a public that overwhelmingly wanted to hear from witnesses in the Senate trial.
So let’s not forget that, however disappointed we might be with the acquittal, November 2020 has always been the real end-game of impeachment. Voters deserve to know the truth about their president — and about their senators — especially during an election year.
Thanks to the impeachment, they know a lot more now. And even if our electoral rights are vulnerable under President Trump, they are still ours to exert. The hope must be that systems like ours decay over decades, not years.
The president’s failure to acknowledge and act against Russian interference in the 2016 election is contemptible. The possibility that the 2020 election will be (or be perceived as) illegitimate is real and frightening.
That’s why removal via impeachment was a good idea. But the 2020 election isn’t a liability for Democrats; it’s a lifeboat. Lifeboats may not always float, but the urgency of these times fully justify taking the risk.