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COMMENTARY

There's a bigger prize than impeachment

IN the autumn of 1998, Erskine Bowles, the Clinton White House chief of staff put a very direct question to Speaker Newt Gingrich: Why were the Republicans intent on impeaching then-president Bill Clinton? Mr Gingrich replied: "Because we can." Now, as the country is gripped by another impeachment debate, many are comparing the two scandals, and handicapping what the Democrats might do. Just like Mr Gingrich then, Speaker Nancy Pelosi could direct the impeachment of US President Donald Trump because she can.

Inevitably the news media and the political chattering class, of which I count myself as a card-carrying member, has focused on the party politics of impeachment. With the benefit of hindsight, impeaching Mr Clinton was a disaster for the Republicans. His job approval was at a record 73 per cent the month that he was impeached, Democrats defied the odds and picked up seats in the midterm elections and Mr Gingrich returned to the private sector.

Impeaching Mr Clinton was wholly a political decision, the substance mattered little in 1998. Two decades later, Democrats face almost the exact opposite dynamics. For Democrats, leaving Mr Trump in office is not only good politics - it is the best chance for fundamental re-alignment of American politics in more than a generation. Mr Trump is three years into destroying what we know as the Republican Party. Another two years just might finish it off. Trumpism has become Republicanism, and that spells electoral doom for the party.

Mr Trump has abandoned most of the core principles that have defined Republicans for the last century. Free trade abandoned for protectionism. Challenging our adversaries and promoting democracy has been replaced by coddling Russia and cosying up to dictators near and far. Fiscal conservatism has been replaced by reckless spending and exploding deficits.

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What is left of the party is a rigid adherence to tax cuts, a social agenda that repels most younger Americans, and rampant xenophobia and race-based politics that regularly interfere with the basic functioning of the federal government. Republicans today are the party of Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity and Tucker Carlson - a coalition that, in the face of every demographic trend in America, will mean the long-term realignment of the federal government behind the Democrats.

We are not quite there yet - but keeping Mr Trump in office is the best way to cement Trumpism's hold on the Republican Party. Republicans themselves know it, and that simple fact is a huge problem for them: By and large they do not like him, and they know that he is a long-term problem for the party. But in the short term, they know that they cannot get re-elected without his voters. For Democrats, it is the dream scenario - as long as he completes his term.

Mr Trump should be impeached because he is unfit for the presidency. He represents a clear and present danger to our national security. We did not need Robert Mueller's report for that. But if Mr Gingrich taught us anything, impeaching the president is likely to be bad politics.

Nothing will unite an increasingly fraying Republican Party than trying to remove the president anywhere but at the ballot box. Democrats risk the kind of overreach that doomed the Republicans 20 years ago. And in any case, Democrats are not likely to succeed in getting votes in the Senate to convict the president. And in politics, a loss is a loss - there are no moral victories.

I fully understand the historical imperative of holding the president accountable for his behaviour. I also share the sentiment of so many Americans who want to punish him for what he has done to the country. But I believe that there is something bigger at stake.

Allowing Mr Trump to lead the Republican Party, filled with sycophants and weak-willed leaders, into the next election is the greater prize. Democrats have a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to realign American politics along progressive lines, very much like what Ronald Reagan did for Republicans in the 1980s.

Trumpism equals Republicanism as long as Mr Trump is at the top of the ticket. And a real shift to progressivism in America will be delivered by a devastating rebuke of the president and his party, a rebuke that will return control of the Senate and state houses across the nation. Politics is always a gamble - and this is the best bet that we have had in a long time. NYTIMES

  • The writer was the White House press secretary from 1998 to 2000