Will Biden See Trump Impeachment as a Benefit or an Obstacle?

Biden has an aggressive policy agenda that will require bipartisan support to be successful.
January 12, 2021
U.S. President-elect Joe Biden delivers remarks after he announced cabinet nominees that will round out his economic team on January 08, 2021 in Wilmington, Delaware. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

Like many Americans, I’ve spent a lot of time in recent days trying to make sense of the tragic events that took place in the U.S. Capitol last week.

We should think of the Capitol as a metaphor for our democracy. It was much more vulnerable than we thought it was, but it survived last week’s assault. And although we don’t know the extent of the damage, there will be a lot of repair work and rebuilding ahead.

In the immediate future, there are carpenters and electricians who will put the building back together. That part doesn’t concern me. But fixing a broken democracy is a much more complicated and much more time-consuming task. And I’m not sure who to call to make that happen.

The traditional tools for healing breaches, such as bipartisanship and reconciliation, seem outmatched against the current challenge. But the debate over another impeachment of President Trump provides a tangible framework within which to consider the best path to recovery. Many leading Democrats — and some Republicans — argue that justice must come before conciliation. But there are voices on both sides of the aisle who make the case just as strongly that the nation will not be able to move forward to solve our many current challenges if we are still condemning each other.

Even many of Donald Trump’s erstwhile defenders agree that he crossed an unforgivable line when he urged a collection of his most ardent followers to take their fight to the Capitol, and some of his strongest allies despaired when he resisted their pleadings to denounce the violence that resulted. But the discussion over the most suitable consequences for his behavior has become more complicated. Many of his fellow Republicans have called for Trump to resign; others have decided that simply dealing with Vice President Mike Pence as if he were the commander in chief until January 20 would have the same practical impact. A small number have joined the call for Trump to be impeached, even if the process were not to be completed until after he leaves office.

Regardless, congressional Democrats are moving forward. Most understand realistically that even if the House of Representatives does act quickly, the Senate would not vote on conviction until after Joe Biden is sworn into office. That belated action would prevent Trump from seeking public office again in the future, and it would also send a clear message that Trump’s actions represented a fundamental threat to the nation’s democracy that could not be allowed to stand without severe punishment.

But Biden has an aggressive policy agenda that will require bipartisan support to be successful. And even beyond specific pieces of legislation, the incoming president predicated his candidacy last year on the premise of bringing the country back together. That broader message of unity and the more practical challenge of passing legislation on COVID-19, economic growth, infrastructure development and other policy goals could be much more difficult in the context of what many Americans would see as a partisan exercise.

Biden has an aggressive policy agenda that will require bipartisan support to be successful.

While Biden himself has not spoken publicly against the possible impeachment, his body language suggests that he sees such a step as more of an obstacle to his work than a benefit. His announcement on Monday that he hoped the Senate could set aside specific days on which to pursue the case against Trump and leave others for his issue priorities did not sound particularly enthusiastic. But the president-elect must tread carefully, at the risk of demotivating a Democratic base already suspicious about his centrist tendencies.

Biden understands that our country cannot continue down this steady decline into factionalism and blame-laying. He understands that a revenge-seeking Democratic majority will simply lay the groundwork for even more bloodthirsty Republican retribution when the GOP regains control. But given the current realities of a balkanized political landscape, he cannot say those things out loud.

I have quoted Nelson Mandela in this space before. After the end of apartheid, when Mandela became South Africa’s leader, many of his supporters urged retribution against their longtime oppressors.

Mandela explained the reason for his preferred approach: “If you want to make peace with your enemy, you have to work with your enemy. Then he becomes your partner.”

The Mandela approach doesn’t always work. But the alternative is always doomed to failure.

Dan Schnur teaches political communications at UC Berkeley, USC and Pepperdine. He hosts the weekly webinar “Politics in the Time of Coronavirus” for the Los Angeles World Affairs Council & Town Hall.

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