As impeachment hearings plow ahead in Washington, the Democrats who drive the process need to begin thinking about the unthinkable: What if, contrary to all expectations, they actually succeeded in driving President Donald Trump from office?
Which party would suffer the most serious damage if the ongoing investigations turned up some horrifying new revelations that led the Senate, despite its 53-47 Republican majority, to find the 67 votes needed to oust Trump from the White House?
While Republicans take comfort in the fact that such an outcome remains profoundly improbable, the Democrats might face an electoral disaster if suddenly forced to challenge a newly installed President Mike Pence instead of the badly wounded incumbent.
Pence, a less divisive figure
For one thing, the mild-mannered, easy-going vice president is far less hated and feared than his polarizing boss. According to Real Clear Politics’ polling averages going back to this summer, the two Republicans have nearly the same “favorable” rating (40-42%) but Trump has a much higher “unfavorable” score (54% to 44%) — a significant difference. A President Pence could claim joint credit for all the achievements Trump loves to cite as grounds for reelection (economic vitality, deregulation, conservative judges, backing for Israel) without the burden of personal quirks that rattle even party loyalists (outrageous tweets, needless feuds, chaotic personnel management and so forth.) Unless there’s credible evidence of illegal or inappropriate actions on the part of Pence, no one could blame a sitting vice president for displaying loyalty to the chief executive who selected him for the job.
As for the die-hard fans who consider Trump a peerless leader, there’s no chance they’d vote for the relentlessly Trump-bashing Democrats and little risk they’d stay home and sulk if deprived of the chance to vote for their hero. Removing Trump from office would produce a tidal wave of indignation (and robust turnouts) in MAGA country, with true believers lifting pitchforks and torches to support Pence as a vote of vindication for their fallen idol.
Different from his boss:We met with Vice President Pence to talk about press freedom. Here’s why it’s important.
At the same time, Pence would enjoy more robust appeal among GOP moderates and conservative-leaning independents, put off by Trump’s hints of populism and isolationism. Without question, Pence stands closer to the party’s traditional mainstream in his support of free trade and a muscular, reliable role on the world stage.
Being a healing presence after Trump could be an asset in 2020
History shows the advantages President Pence could enjoy as a unifying figure after a polarizing national trauma.
In the midst of 1974’s Watergate scandal, President Richard Nixon’s approval ratings plummeted to the mid-20s before his resignation, but Gerald Ford, his appointed successor, drew 71% approval (according to Gallup) during his first days in office.
That fell sharply after he pardoned his predecessor, but Ford still rallied for 49% of the popular vote two years later in a breathlessly close election against Jimmy Carter. And Ford first overcame a fierce primary challenge from the formidable governor of California, Ronald Reagan.
Pence would face no such nomination challenge because of the brute facts of timing: A Senate impeachment trial might not occur until the first months of 2020 — perhaps as late as Super Tuesday on March 3. With the Republican National Convention set for Aug. 24, no prospective GOP contender could mount a credible, timely primary challenge.
Nor would a President Pence feel obliged to wound himself with an unpopular pardon: On June 4, 2018, President Trump used his Twitter account to assert his “absolute right” to pardon himself, if the situation demanded it, and some legal scholars agree that he could preemptively pardon himself (and his family members) at any time before surrendering power.
We already have the VP:Impeach and don’t worry (much) about President Pence.
The president’s most strident critics insist that the nation faces grave danger every day he remains in office, but smart Democrats should dread the electoral impact of driving him from office before the end of his term. No matter how badly the ongoing investigations may tarnish Trump, his tormenters should rightly prefer an embattled, embarrassing incumbent, rather than a genial, less vulnerable replacement as their preferred target in 2020.
Michael Medved, a member of USA TODAY’s Board of Contributors, hosts a daily radio talk show heard across the country. His new book is “God’s Hand on America: Divine Providence in the Modern Era.” Follow him on Twitter: @MedvedSHOW