Censuring Trump is not a viable alternative to impeachment

Matthew Walther

Those of us who have spent the last week or so pretending that the reality show in Washington was canceled are just now catching up with the episodes that aired while we were watching football and eating leftovers. The latest storyline being breathlessly analyzed by the more committed fans is abandoning impeachment in order to "censure" President Trump in the House of Representatives.

This is perhaps the most delusional idea entertained by the president's Republican enemies — all 12 of them — yet. Instead of an arcane, constitutionally dubious process that has never quite succeeded but is at least universally recognizable, what if we tried to subject Trump to an arcane, constitutionally dubious process that about 1 percent of the American people have even heard of?

There are a lot of problems with this. My first question is what, if anything, these people know about the history of presidential censures. They all talk as if it were a more straightforward process than impeachment, which has worked all of two times in the last two and a half centuries. There has only been one unambiguous example of a censure of a sitting president by the House, in 1834, when the Whig-dominated Congress took Andrew Jackson to task for refusing to share documents related to his shuttering of the Bank of the United States. Do they know that something like this has been attempted dozens of times since and never gotten off the ground? Why do they think it will be any easier to pass than impeachment? Censure is not a more viable alternative to impeachment.

More important, why do they think it would matter? Could the average American even tell you what the verb "censure" means? I would be willing to bet any amount of money that the most tangible result of a censure vote would be cable news anchors spelling the word on-air and explaining that it does not mean the same thing as "C-E-N-S-O-R." This would not stop hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of retirement-aged low-information voters from talking about how the Demoncrats' latest plot — not a secret one, they actually voted for it! — is to "ban" our president. I am as down on political consultants as most cynical members of my profession, but in this case I really do think it would be wise to run this particular word by the focus groupers, unless they want to spend the next year begging their friends at Politifact to do another piece debunking the latest "I THOUGHT DEMOCRATS WERE AGAINST CENSORSHIP" meme.

All that said, it is still easy to see why some Democrats, like Rep. Brenda Lawrence of Michigan, have warmed to the idea of a censure. Impeachment and removal continue to poll badly, especially in the purple battleground states the party needs to retake in 2020. They have nothing to gain and a good deal to lose by taking impeachment any further. But why let months of testimony go to waste?

Even so, censure strategy makes no sense. For censure to be of any importance, Democrats would have to convince their base that it is something more than a partisan wrist-slap to a president they have already criticized for everything, including retweeting wrestling GIFs and having opinions about pro football. But the harder they try to sell it as something comparable in significance to impeachment in, say, 30-second television spots ("Following formal impeachment proceedings before the House Intelligence Committee, he was censured for his conduct involving the president of Ukraine"), the more likely they are to invite all the bad things associated with the "i" word itself. If they go the other way and insist that it is nothing so bad as all that, voters — including the ones who do want to see Trump impeached — will ignore it, and rightly so.

There is a reason that Nancy Pelosi was reluctant to allow her party to go down this road in the first place. The Iowa caucus and the New Hampshire primary are next month. The election itself is less than a year away. Their front-runner is a geriatric who cannot speak for more than 30 seconds at a time without producing a Buzzfeed ranking of his 10 favorite segregationist colleagues or theorizing about when it is is appropriate for men to hit women; behind him are two avowed socialists and the mayor of a small college town in Indiana. The party should devote its time and resources to deciding which of these four people has the best chance of beating Trump when it matters, not on entertaining lunatic theories from conservative op-ed writers.

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