Unintended Consequences

Dr. Malcolm Cross

According to the Law of Unintended Consequences, actions taken by people to achieve one goal may have other consequences definitely not foreseen and probably not wanted.  The Democrats’ drive to impeach President Trump and ban him from holding any federal public office in the future may prove to be a good example.

President Trump has been impeached again, making him the first president to be impeached twice.  His trial before the Senate will probably commence shortly after President-elect Biden’s inauguration.  Whatever the outcome of the trial, the Democrats are likely to hurt themselves, and help the Republicans, far more than they currently think.  They’ll be undermining Biden’s efforts to launch his administration, increasing the probability of GOP success in 2024, and increasing the likelihood of more impeachments in the near future as well.

Exactly when the trial of soon-to-be former President Trump will be held remains to be determined.  But it could prove to be a drawn-out affair, distracting Biden’s Senate supporters from dealing with his agenda, to the detriment of Biden’s success in launching his administration.

Specialists in the presidency believe that, in general, the earlier a new president presents his legislative program—the New Deal, the Great Society, the New Federalism, whatever—the more likely the Congress will act favorably on it.  The Congress will frequently recognize a “honeymoon period,’ especially during the first 100 days of a new president’s administration, in which it gives his program the benefit of the doubt and more favorable attention than it might otherwise receive.  But as the president’s term proceeds, opponents have more time to organize and develop strategies and tactics aimed at defeating the president’s agenda.  In this case, with the Senate conducting a trial and diverting time and attention away from Biden’s agenda, Republicans in both the Senate and House will have more time and opportunities to develop ways and means of blocking its implementation.  

Whatever the outcome of the trial, the GOP will be politically strengthened.  Trump remains the single most popular Republican leader, enjoying the support of the overwhelming majority of Republican voters.  Democratic attempts to convict him may well strengthen Republicans’ loyalty,  support, and unity, and a united party is invariably more difficult to defeat than a divided party. And its premature to take too seriously the fact that 10 Republican representatives voted to impeach Trump, when 197 voted against impeachment.  Reports of a major division in the GOP over Trump remain premature, at best.

Of course, should Trump be convicted and banned from holding further political office, he obviously won’t be able to seek the presidency again.  But while this works to Trump’s disadvantage, it may even increase the GOP’s chances for victory in 2024.   

Should Trump be acquitted, he will be the odds-on favorite to win renomination, should he seek it.  But whether he could win the general election is problematical.  He’s twice lost the popular vote.  While it’s possible to win a majority of the electoral vote while losing the popular vote, as the elections of 2000 and 2016 show, it’s still better to win both.  Moreover, in 44 of the 49 presidential elections conducted since 1824, when tallies of the popular vote first became common, the winner of the popular vote did indeed win the all-important electoral vote majority necessary to become president—and necessary to govern with far less rancor and far more effectiveness than those presidents who came in second in the popular vote.

But should Trump be unable or unwilling to seek another term, the GOP will be able to nominate another candidate who may be far more electable.  In a previous column I wrote of the mythical Ronald Stump, the figment of the imagination of a Washington Post columnist who opined that a president with Trump’s policies but with the personality and temperament of a more conventional politician could easily win the 2020 election.  This was written in the fall of 2019, before the pandemic, yet the point remains valid.  Whoever wins the 2024 GOP presidential nomination would presumably support the resumption of Trump’s most popular policies—conservative judges, tax cuts, business deregulation, more vigorous immigration restrictions, and economic protectionism.  On the other hand, he would in all probability be a more conventional and less divisive figure than Trump, and hence more electable.

Finally, it should be noted that impeachment is becoming more and more common.  A period of 106 years elapsed between the impeachment of Andrew Johnson in 1868 and the aborted impeachment of Richard Nixon in 1974.  But only 24 years elapsed between Nixon’s impeachment ordeal and Clinton’s, 21 years passed between Clinton’s impeachment and Trump’s first impeachment, and only 1 year separated Trump’s first and second impeachment.  As Congress gets used to impeaching presidents, it may become more likely to do so.  Republican representatives are already preparing to introduce articles of impeachment against Biden.  Of course, they’ll get no where in a majority-Democratic House of Representatives.  But what if the Republicans win back the House in 2022, as may well happen?  The impeachments of President Trump will provide, in the minds of many, a good reason to turn the tables and exact revenge.

It’s probable that the Democrats, in their zeal to rid the political system of Trump, have devoted little if any thought to the possible political ramifications of their actions.  They may well believe that it is unpatriotic and beneath them to do so.  But if the Democrats have ignored the Law of Unintended Consequences before their impeachment drive, they may well get a good schooling in it soon anyway.

Malcolm L. Cross has lived in Stephenville and taught politics and government at Tarleton since 1987. His political and civic activities include service on the Stephenville City Council (2000-2014) and on the Erath County Republican Executive Committee (1990 to the present).  He was Mayor Pro Tem of Stephenville from 2008 to 2014.  He is a member of St. Luke’s Episcopal Church and the Stephenville Rotary Club, and does volunteer work for the Boy Scouts of America. Views expressed in this column are his and do not reflect those of The Flash as a whole.

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