What’s behind the Democrats’ power play
Democrats are rushing into impeachment despite the knowledge that, given what we know now, the Senate will not remove Donald Trump from office. Why is Nancy Pelosi doing this?
Because she has resigned herself to the argument that impeaching Trump is the way for Democrats to win the presidency and Senate 13 months from now. Pelosi’s bank shot isn’t aimed at Trump’s conviction on the Hill. It’s aimed at his loss at the polls.
American University professor Allan Lichtman best expressed the political logic in a recent op-ed. His “13 keys” model, along with most quantitative forecasts, currently favors Trump’s reelection. Lichtman says impeachment would change that by tarnishing the incumbent with scandal. The facts of the case, and whether the Senate convicts, do not matter.
Impeachment alone would not doom Trump according to Lichtman’s model. What it might do is trigger additional events that would help Democrats. The cumulative effect would be a Republican loss.
The conventional wisdom that impeachment backfired on the Republicans in 1998 has been overturned. Yes, the argument goes, the GOP gave up some House seats. That did not stop them from winning the presidency and both chambers of Congress two years later. Impeachment contributed to “Clinton fatigue.” It boosted the chances of a candidate who promised to restore dignity to the White House. The same could happen in 2020.
Advocates of impeachment say the inquiry, whether an official “proceeding” or not, might damage Trump’s approval rating to such an extent that he will draw forth a significant primary challenger, a third-party candidacy, or both. Nor is political tumult and uncertainty helpful for a global economy roiled by trade war and lack of investment. Recession would make Trump’s downfall even more likely.
If impeachment comes to a vote in the House, Democrats representing Trump districts will be risking their political futures. Pelosi seems willing to take that risk. She knows this knife cuts both ways.
Mitch McConnell says that if the House votes to impeach, the Senate will hold a trial. It won’t just be Democrats Doug Jones (who is in cycle) and Joe Manchin, Jon Tester, and Kyrsten Sinema (who are not) in awkward positions. So will Republicans Susan Collins, Martha McSally, Cory Gardner, and Thom Tillis, all up for reelection. Democratic victory in the Senate is critical for progressives. McConnell is Horatius standing between Elizabeth Warren and structural reform of the Senate, the judiciary, and the U.S. economy.
Pelosi has fixed impeachment on the July 25 phone call between Trump and Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky for three reasons. The scandal fits on a television chyron: “Trump pressured Ukraine for dirt on Biden.” The process can be run through her ally Adam Schiff’s Intelligence Committee rather than through the obstreperous Jerry Nadler’s Judiciary. And the national security connection provides cover for the seven moderate freshmen with backgrounds in defense and intelligence agencies.
What makes Ukraine different from the Russia investigation is the simplicity of the alleged wrongdoing. Everyone can read the transcript of the Trump-Zelensky phone call and decide whether its contents warrant impeachment and removal from office in an election year. The Democrats need to move quickly, however, and maintain focus. Otherwise they risk losing the plot.
Speed is essential if Ukraine is to avoid the fate of other supposedly Trump-destroying scandals that collapsed from either a dearth of outrage or internal contradictions. Stormy, Avenatti, Omarosa, Scaramucci, Cohen have all gone the way of the dodo. The Russia investigation was too confusing, its results too murky, its special counsel too confused to end or cause lasting damage to Trump.
For Ukraine to be different, the Democrats must uncover evidence that will convince independents and some Republicans the president abused his office. That hasn’t happened yet. Already there are signs of overreach: the attempt to rope in William Barr and Mike Pompeo, tenuous arguments that the Zelensky call somehow broke the law, and calls for canceling Rudy Giuliani’s media appearances and for shutting down the president’s Twitter feed. Pelosi is moving quickly under the assumption that the longer the process takes, the more opportunities Trump will have to wriggle out of this vise, and the more Democrats will become distracted and dissolute.
“How can I lose?” asked Paul Newman’s character Fast Eddie in The Hustler. Pelosi might ask the same question as she enters her own high-stakes tournament. Eddie thought he had a pretty good bank shot, too.
if you’re looking for confirmation bias—and by all accounts, that’s the mode of analysis our president prefers—there is plenty of evidence to suggest that the only thing the Trump administration needs is More Trump.
.. the Trump clones did well. Sure, Corey Stewart and Kris Kobach lost. But Trump can tell himself that Virginia is a Clinton state he doesn’t need and that he couldn’t lose Kansas in 2020 if he tried. In important states—tossups he has to have for reelection—the Trump clones won. In Florida and Georgia, Ron DeSantis and Brian Kemp ran as Mini-Trumps. And not only did these two win, but they beat the kind of young, progressive minority candidates that the Democrats are itching to put up against Trump in two years... Trump skeptics took a thumping. Barbara Comstock, Mia Love, Mike Coffman—all of those uppity conservatives who voted for Trump when they had to, but refused to bend the knee? Gone, gone, and gone. And in case you doubt how crucial this was to the president, he spent several minutes of his postelection press conference naming and shaming the Republican losers who did not sufficiently “embrace”—his word, he used it five times—him... Because, as everyone knows, Carlos Curbelo would have held on to Florida’s 26th District—which is 72 percent Hispanic and 50 percent foreign-born—had he gotten on board with Trump’s plan to sign away birthright citizenship. Cuck got what he deserved... The gains in the Senate are even better. Not only did Republicans add to their number, they did so while subtracting people, such as Jeff Flake and Bob Corker, who never showed the same level of discernment as Beautiful Ted. The result is a bigger, Trumpier majority, which, by extension, will put even more pressure on the one or two remaining Republican senators who have been reluctant to embrace the president... So if, for instance, the president needed the Senate to confirm a judge or a new attorney general, or—and we’re just spitballing here—vote on a trial of impeachment, then Trump is in a much stronger position... for all the talk about how Trumpism is a reaction to leftism and social-justice warriors and political correctness, the truth is that it is principally an intra-party fight... And like the Maoists, the Trumpers aren’t really interested in picking a fight with the other superpower. They’re much more concerned with controlling the near abroad—which is to say, the Republican party. That’s why they tend to focus their hatred on Republicans and conservatives who decline to get on board, rather than on Democrats and liberals. Jeff Flake is the enemy; Kamala Harris is just a random nonplayer character... Always remember that Trumpers—the people who believe in him, not the remora fish looking for their bits of chum—care very little about the left. Their real opponents are other Republicans. Seen from that perspective, Tuesday’s vote was a huge success. Because for Trumpers, it’s never a binary choice. Wherever a Trump-skeptical Republican was running against a Democrat, Trumpism couldn’t lose... In the final weeks of the midterm campaign, 4 percent looked like the most important number in politics: unemployment was under it and GDP growth over it. This was, economically speaking, as good as it gets, and most political professionals thought Republicans should be running on these numbers... Yet Trump decided to close the election with American Carnage 2. He obsessed about the caravan that was winding its way to our southern border. (No one seems to have asked why they wouldn’t be deterred by the Wall that Mexico paid for.) Trump ordered 5,000 troops to the border. Then the number was 10,000. Then 15,000. Then he said he was going to order these soldiers to fire on anyone who threw a rock in their general direction, even though the caravan was still a thousand miles away. The president ran an anti-immigration ad so vile that Fox News—the network whose journalists appeared onstage at a Trump campaign rally—pulled it off the air... In short, Trump looked at our fat, happy days of peace and prosperity and decided to run on fear, division, and chaos. And he was right... In politics, as in every other facet of life, you must always consider opportunity cost. And yes, it’s possible that some other closing message from the president might have produced marginally better electoral outcomes for Republicans. But maybe not. At the very least, the president’s gambit did no great harm. There was no big break against Republicans. Most of the races went according to form... The caravan worked. Sticking with Brett Kavanaugh was smart. There was no price for playing “false flag” games with the attempted mail-bombing of Democrats. No apologies, for anything, ever... Those are the lessons of 2018 and the doctrines that will shape the war of 2020. You can understand why Trump looked across the country on Tuesday night and tweeted, “Tremendous success tonight. Thank you to all!” He was smiling. The GOP caucuses in both the House and Senate will be even more friendly to him than before. His enemies have been crushed beneath his feet... The problem with getting rid of Love and Curbelo and Comstock is that it gives Democrats control of the House. Trumpism may not be interested in Democrats, but Democrats are interested in Trump. And now they have subpoena power.
.. Once a new speaker is sworn in, the Democrats will be able to investigate and call witnesses and poke and prod the administration in ways we can foresee and ways we cannot. There are, for instance, reports that the president’s son expects to be indicted. If that comes to pass, any attempt by the president to protect him will face scrutiny with the force of law behind it.
.. The White House and its surrogates have announced that they welcome Democratic overreach and are prepared to make war against congressmen who push investigations. Trump expressly threatened potential investigators in his press conference.
.. But the kinds of Democrats willing to take the hardest line against Trump will be from the safest districts. Trump can’t hurt them. And, moreover, getting to overreach means enduring an awful lot of pain during the initial-reach. Clinton and the Democrats benefited from Republican overreach in the 1998 midterm elections. The experience was not terribly pleasant for them... There are other problems on the horizon. The Democrats who won on Tuesday—Jon Tester, Joe Manchin, Tim Kaine—tended to be more centrist. The party’s progressive stars—Beto! Andrew! Stacey!—were wiped out, leaving Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez sitting forlornly in the corner with her movie-star cheekbones, glamorous jackets, and lost dreams of a socialist-Democratic future. This does not mean that Democratic voters will choose a nominee who is in step with mainstream politics in 2020. But these losses make that possibility more likely. The lesson has been taught, and all Democrats have to do is learn it... There’s even the possibility that Democrats may look at the midterms and the caravan and learn a lesson about immigration. They’re never going to outbid Trump on nativism, but they don’t have to. All they have to do is convince a small share of marginal independent voters that they’re not secretly for open borders and that they do take illegal immigration seriously. If you can’t do that while maintaining your liberal base, then you don’t belong in professional politics. It’s not a heavy lift... The other problem for Trump is that the numbers don’t look especially good for him. It is difficult to imagine external circumstances being better for Republicans two years from now—you can’t really top “no major wars and 4 percent.” So the macro-environment will either be equivalent or worse... In 2016, he got the second-smallest share of the popular vote (46.1 percent) of any Republican since 2000. He ran 3 points—which is a lot—behind Republicans in the House popular vote that year. And in the 2018 midterms, he pulled the Republican share of the House popular vote down to his own 2016 level, to what is likely the third-smallest percentage for Republicans since 1994.. Trump won in 2016 because even though he ran behind most congressional Republicans, their turnout was enough to pull him over the line. Over the last two years, Republicans have been pulled backward toward him, not the other way around... The good news for Trump and his Republicans is that they won’t have to beat the ’27 Yankees. They just have to beat whomever the Democrats put in front of them... for Trump in 2020, there cannot be a Morning in America campaign. There will be no 48-state mandate that realigns American politics for a generation. At best, Trump can hope to radicalize Democrats into nominating a weak contender and then gamble that the country is closely enough divided to give him a chance of drawing to an inside straight, again. This is not a crazy strategy. It might even be the best move available on the board.All of which means more chaos, more apocalypse, more carnage. More Trump.