Sean Wilentz says yes, although much more politely of course:
Pelosi, more surprisingly, is also ignoring the chief political lesson of the Nixon impeachment. The case against authorizing an impeachment inquiry rests in part on polling, which shows that the public over all remains unconvinced that an impeachment inquiry is warranted—though the number in favor keeps growing. Yet had the House Democratic leadership come to the same conclusion in early 1974—when, it needs remembering, public support for impeachment was actually weaker—Nixon would have finished out his second term. The lesson is simple: on matters as serious as a Presidential impeachment, the opposition must lead, not follow, public opinion; it must examine and develop the evidence in plain view, and not permit the White House to persist in shaping perceptions through concealment and lies.
Another lesson follows from this one. Asserting that a Senate acquittal would allow Trump to claim vindication elides the fact Trump has already claimed vindication, a falsehood which the Democrats’ failure to pursue impeachment would only strengthen. It also overlooks how a Senate trial always reinforces either the severity of the alleged crimes and the persuasiveness of the evidence, or the lack thereof. Nixon resigned only when Senate Republicans told him that his case would not survive a trial. Trump’s domination of the G.O.P. does make it all but impossible that the Senate would vote to remove him. But evidence presented by the House impeachment managers would enrage independents as well as Democrats, on the eve of the election, putting pressure on vulnerable Senate Republicans as well as on Trump. The electorate would, in effect, do the job that the Senate refused to do.
Pelosi, viewing the House and Senate proceedings narrowly, argues that Trump is best contested not with impeachment, which would be divisive, but by replaying the kitchen-table issues that won the Democrats the House majority in 2018—health care, immigration, and climate change. But that strategy would commit the classic military blunder of fighting a war on the basis of the last successful campaign, regardless of the facts and context. It’s one thing to defeat Republicans in congressional races in which Trump’s name does not appear on the ballot. It’s quite another to defeat them when the charismatic Trump heads the ticket and is able to claim that he is exonerated because Democrats did not pursue an impeachment inquiry. In any event, the campaign so far has showcased that Democrats are far from united on a number of kitchen-table issues, from Medicare for All to the Green New Deal.
It’s hard to think of an electorate in modern times any more split than the one that exists today, which Trump is powerfully dividing, on his own anti-liberal terms. Pursuing a fully justified impeachment inquiry, however, would turn Trump’s demagogy against him. It would reframe the division on constitutional terms, not with empty insults but with hard evidence, televised daily—the kind of evidence that could turn crucial independent opinion and energize a Democratic base. The principal issue that truly unites and mobilizes the fractured Democrats, and with them a majority of Independents, is the clear and present danger of Donald J. Trump. To this extent, Trump’s narcissism has succeeded in making American politics revolve around him—but to deny that reality will only perpetuate it and enable him politically. To expose his actions in detail, however, starting with his manifest failure to defend the national security against continuing Russian cyberattacks and Putin’s open support for the evisceration of “obsolete” Western liberal democracy, would put the matter differently—and put him on the defensive.
Such proceedings would also accentuate the now-or-never importance of the 2020 election. Think of Trump in a second term, backed by a compliant Supreme Court, bolstered by a Senate perhaps still led by Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, and guided by an Attorney General set on realizing the dream of a “unitary executive.” The recent Supreme Court ruling giving license to the wholesale gerrymandering of congressional districts, along with Trump’s defiant order to include a citizenship question in the census, are just two indications of where we would be headed.
Wilentz’s case for impeachment is plausible enough, but of course the problem is that the case for Pelosi’s go-slow approach is also plausible. (I will say that as a historian Wilentz takes what seems like a somewhat cavalier attitude toward the massive differences in the political ecosystems of America in 1974 and 2019. He doesn’t, for example, mention the right-wing noise machine in either its legacy or social media forms).
My critical contribution to this debate is to note that it’s a tough call, and that basically all the options look very fraught at best and potentially disastrous at worst, because our political system is in the midst of a long not-so-slow decline.
The extraordinary difficulty of trying to figure out the best path toward removing a completely unfit proto-fascist cult leader from the office of the presidency is Exhibit A of that decline.