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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

December 11: Falling Between Two Stools on Impeachment?

As the Kabuki Theater of impeachment rolls along in the U.S. House, there are legitimate fears about how it will all play out for Democrats, as I explained this week at New York:

 It’s important to internalize a couple of basic facts about the big picture with respect to the impeachment process: (1) Trump is not going to be removed from office by the Senate, and (2) whatever impact impeachment has on future presidents or on historical judgments of this Congress — both factors often cited by Democrats favoring impeachment — we won’t know it for a good while. So the only thing relevant to analyze is the effect that this process and its trajectory may have on the 2020 elections.

We just don’t know at this point how the voting public will adjudge the impeachment inquiry, the House impeachment, or the Senate acquittal. Public support for impeachment spiked a bit just before and just after the formal process was initiated, but it has stabilized amid evidence that it’s not very popular in the Rust Belt battleground states where Trump pulled his upset in 2016. Attitudes toward impeachment, not surprisingly, are beginning to pretty closely match attitudes toward Trump and his reelection bid. So the best early evidence is that the impact of impeachment may be on the margins of the election, where enthusiasm and turnout patterns are legitimately important and not just the subject of spin.

That should concern Democrats. The decision by Nancy Pelosi to quickly enact narrow articles of impeachment before the 2020 election year formally begins may well indicate that she views it as a distraction at best and as a potential problem for Democrats at worst. These attitudes should be unsurprising given her steady resistance to going down that road until the Ukraine scandal broke and the Democratic rank and file shifted massively into the pro-impeachment camp. As I noted when the articles were announced, pro-impeachment Democrats — including those who favored taking this step before the Ukraine scandal appeared and Pelosi climbed aboard — may soon feel cheated out of a deep, broad investigation that would accompany the 2020 campaign:

“It’s certainly not hard to suspect that Pelosi is really just cutting losses by focusing on one incident of Trump’s misgovernment and racing to impeach him by year’s end so that House Democrats can move on to their previously scheduled election-year agenda. And the impression that she’s ready to ‘move on’ is certainly reinforced by the fact that she is holding another presser today to announce support for the administration’s renegotiated U.S.-Mexico-Canada trade agreement.”

At the same time, though, impeachment has gone far enough to unite Republicans behind Trump and give them the relentless talking point they have already agreed upon and will repeat like a meditative chant at any moment Republican partisans need a fresh burst of energy: Impeachment is a coup designed to rob American voters of their right to elect — or reelect — the president of their choice. A variation on this theme that we will briefly hear before the Senate trial concludes is that panic-stricken Democrats know the only way they can keep Trump from a second term is to secure his removal from office. But he and the GOP will thwart these traitors, and the preordained acquittal will be celebrated as total exoneration wherever MAGA folk gather.

So in one party, you will have excited, triumphant fans of the president, who once again eluded and outsmarted his elitist enemies, snake-dancing to the polls to secure another four years for their hero. In the other, you will have some people who want to forget about impeachment altogether and talk about health care whenever the party’s presidential candidates aren’t bickering about it, plus some people who are in a state of simmering resentment that their congressional leaders just went through the motions and didn’t expose Trump’s broader crimes and misdemeanors.

This isn’t an equation that works out very well for Democrats in 2020. Yes, of course, they can still beat Trump, and unless his job-approval rating finally rises, they probably will if their presidential nominee is decent and competent and acceptable to all party factions. But it may well be that Pelosi’s effort to thread the needle on impeachment will instead show her to have fallen between two stools, disappointing Democrats yet giving Republicans the hate-rage jet fuel on which they thrive.

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