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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Are Democratic Leaders ‘Overthinking’ Impeachment, Or Playing a Smart Hand?

Matt Ford, staff writer at The New Republic, argues that “The Democrats Are Overthinking Trump’s Impeachment. Naturally: They’re scared that trying to remove him would backfire, but they’re taking the wrong lessons from the past—and ignoring voters’ wishes in the present.”

Ford says of “Speaker Nancy Pelosi and other top Democrats” that “their strategy of describing Trump as a lawless threat to the republic while refusing to begin impeachment proceedings against him has gone from simply untenable to openly laughable.” Further, Ford argues:

Anti-impeachment Democrats offer multiple reasons not to begin the process. Some have argued that the American people aren’t yet supportive enough of impeachment to justify it. Others have warned that it could energize Trump’s base and alienate moderate voters, thereby paving the road to his re-election next year. Many of them have argued that impeachment is a futile gesture while Republicans control the Senate, where a two-thirds vote would be needed to remove Trump from office. But none of these excuses are persuasive. And when placed alongside Amash’s honorable stand against his own party’s leader, they smack of political cowardice.

This approach was defensible at first. Impeachment is a weighty process that should not be undertaken lightly, so it’s understandable that Democrats wanted to show some caution before launching it. They also understandably wanted to hold off while Mueller’s investigation was ongoing, in case he uncovered evidence that would be relevant for impeachment proceedings. With Mueller’s findings now public, those arguments for prudence have lost currency.

Ford, a former skeptic about impeachment, believes that the arguments for delay have been invalidated by events and Trump’s behavior, including the probability that the Senate will not vote for conviction. “As Quinta Jurecic and Yoni Appelbaum have explained,” Ford writes, “the Senate’s potential unwillingness to finish the job does not free the House from its duty to begin it… Trump would take his acquittal by the Senate as vindication of his behavior, what conclusion would he and future presidents draw from the House’s refusal to impeach him for it in the first place?”

Ford distills his argument well in his concluding paragraphs: “Top Democrats are so obsessed with how Trump’s base would respond to impeachment that they neglect their own. The Democrats swept into power in last year’s midterms on a pledge to hold Trump to task. Will that energy hold if they keep telling liberal voters that accountability is just too hard…Nothing could make Democrats look weaker than spending the next two years warning that Trump is an existential threat to American democracy, then telling voters that it’s not worth the trouble to impeach him.”

Ford makes that argument as well as it’s been made. But is it possible that Pelosi, Schumer and other Democratic leaders know all that and generally agree with it, but also want to proceed cautiously so they don’t appear reckless? Ford may be underestimating these leaders, who, after all, understand congressional procedures, legal isues and the timetables involved better than most journalists. Pelosi’s strategic mastery of the Affordable Care Act debate and votes at least suggests the possibility.

I was one of those voters who used to roll my eyes when I thought President Obama was bending over too far backwards repeatedly in hopes of winning over reasonable centrists. But looking back, it now looks like he was crafting an image as the only adult in the room, and that credibility served him well in securing the only major health care reform legislation in decades. He was playing the long game, while I and others wanted instant gratification.

Democratic leaders are now feeling the heat for impeachment as they should. If a little delay on their part is needed to finesse optimal timing, that may end up being a good thing. FDR used to tell leaders of popular movements “Make me do do it” — his way of saying ‘I agree with you, but we’ve got to build popular support a bit more to make it work.’

Ford’s case may prove to be right. But Pelosi, Schumer, Nadler, Schiff and others didn’t get to be top congressional leaders by not being able to count votes or estimate popular support. Hell yes, Trump should be impeached. But if Democratic leaders need a little more time to make a winning case and build support, that seems like a reasonable approach.

One comment on “Are Democratic Leaders ‘Overthinking’ Impeachment, Or Playing a Smart Hand?

  1. Martin Lawford on

    To win popular support for his impeachment, the Democrats must show that Trump committed some overt act which is both illegal and significant. Paying hush money to a porn star is not illegal, especially since she didn’t stay hushed. Making money on real estate one owns in foreign countries is not illegal, either, especially since Trump was doing that before he was elected President. If the Democrats can catch him doing something like covering up the Watergate burglary, then OK, most people can see the crime in that. But, it is going to take something that obviously corrupt to get the support of most Americans for impeachment. It is not enough for Democrats to convince each other, they must convince most of the electorate and they have yet to do so.

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