Michelle Yang / Sun Staff Photographer

Prof. Sarah Kreps, government, Prof. David Bateman, and Prof. Michael Dorf, law, discuss the ongoing Senate impeachment trial.

January 30, 2020

A Wash for the Democrats? Cornell Profs. Discuss Impeachment

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Some argue the current impeachment is a stance for justice, while others claim it to be a political sham.

Two Cornell professors, Prof. Michael Dorf, law, and Prof. Sarah Kreps, government, took to the stage on Wednesday night to debate the legal and political concerns surrounding the third-ever impeachment. The talk was moderated by Prof. David Bateman, government.

On Dec. 18, the House of Representatives impeached President Donald Trump on two articles: abuse of power, stemming from Trump’s alleged solicitation of Ukrainian interference in the 2020 presidential election, and obstruction of Congress, tied to his failure to comply with House-issued subpoenas.

Now — as the trial has turned to the Senate — Dorf argued that Republican senators are currently serving the interests of their party, rather than the institution. The Senate currently has a three-seat Republican majority, which so far has been closely supportive of the president.

 During the Nixon era, parties were not nearly as ideologically coherent as today, leaving open the possibility that Republicans would vote against a president belonging to the same party, according to Dorf.

In his view, though, today’s increased partisanship has made that no longer a possibility.

 “The basic problem, from my perspective, is that our Constitution was written by people who neither expected nor wanted there to be political parties,” Dorf said. “I think we have reached [Andrew Hamilton’s] and [James Madison’s] nightmare in that the party system has truly taken over the separation of powers system.”

What is happening now in the Senate is less of an investigation of the facts, according to Bateman, who argued that impeachment is about which side can make the most compelling case to a partisan electorate.

 “It is true that there is always a fuzzy line between a political gain and a legitimate policy objective, but life is nothing but fuzzy lines” Bateman said. “We are always in the business of trying to discern whether [something] was a legitimate action or not.”

While both professors asserted that the current trial has been marred by intense partisanship, Dorf expressed less certainty over whether the proceedings would be a political winner for Democrats.

“A lot is going to depend on the perception,” Dorf said. “I still tend to think that impeachment is going to be politically at best a wash — possibly harmful — for the Democrats.”

Recent surveys on the electoral ramifications of impeachment proceedings have yielded mixed results. According to 538’s polling tracker, Americans’ support for removing Trump from office currently stands at just below 50 percent.

With the Iowa caucus only five days away, Kreps said that the impeachment’s timeline may hurt Democrats by distracting them from the upcoming presidential primaries. The media wants to focus on the “shiny object in the room” — impeachment she said.

“[Impeachment] is taking up all of the oxygen,” Kreps said. “Comparatively, little focus is on the Democratic candidates at a time when I would think that they want to be building up enthusiasm.”

 Bateman asked the panel whether the impeachment was “anything more than just theater” — or if the Democrats were simply using it as a tool to momentarily curtail the president.


“There is a literature in the law about publicity as a form of accountability, even without any further sanction,” Dorf responded, suggesting that, even if the Senate does not render a guilty verdict, shaming is its own form of penalty.

But, Dorf added — “that assumes agents who are capable of experiencing shame.”