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Democrats’ 2018 impeachment dilemma, explained

Impeaching Trump polls poorly, but Democratic candidates can’t ignore the elephant in the room

Protestors In NYC Call For Trump Impeachment For Acts Of Sexual Assault Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Republicans facing bad news in House generic ballot polls and worse news from actual special election results have found a new thread of hope: If President Donald Trump’s unpopularity is the source of their problems, then perhaps rank-and-file Democrats’ zeal to remove him from office can be their salvation.

Starting earlier this month, GOP groups have been talking up the threat of impeachment to motivate their base, and Democratic Party leaders have tried to avoid talking about it.

Conservative pundits, meanwhile, are salivating over polling from Quinnipiac that shows impeachment to be a true wedge issue that commands overwhelming support from rank-and-file Democrats while the mass public expresses profound unease.

Indeed, the smarter pundits are already laying the groundwork for the argument that if congressional Republicans go out of their way to cooperate with Trump’s ongoing efforts to tear down the rule of law, Democrats will have only themselves to blame for their misguided efforts to uphold it by impeaching him.

Congressional Democrats, meanwhile, are probably right to think that running on an impeachment platform isn’t the best way to win in 2018.

But their preferred strategy of evading the issue has some obvious shortcomings. Their base wants impeachment, Republicans want to talk about impeachment, the media likes impeachment stories, and Trump’s conduct and unfitness for office are obviously the central issues in American politics and can’t just be swept under the rug.

Democrats need to confront this topic by laying out a specific agenda to confront Trump and check his abuses of power, while also being clear that they are not going to let the congressional docket be dominated by a completely futile drive for impeachment.

Trump is the main issue in 2018

It’s typical for the party that holds the presidency to lose ground in midterms and special elections, so on one level, there’s nothing remotely surprising about the GOP finding itself on the defensive as spring turns to summer.

That said, with the unemployment rate low, wages rising, and the country not experiencing large military casualties abroad, the GOP position ought to be relatively secure.

Instead, Republicans are facing a potentially catastrophic outcome:

  • Across 70 special elections in 2017, Democratic candidates outperformed Hillary Clinton’s 2016 vote share by 10 percentage points and Barack Obama’s 2012 vote share by 7.
  • The trend has, if anything, accelerated in 2018, with Democrats now beating Clinton’s margin by 16 points.
  • Looking specifically at House of Representatives races, averaged across 2017 and 2018, Democrats have outperformed Clinton’s margin by 14 points.
  • In concrete terms, the GOP has already lost a House seat in Pennsylvania that Trump won by 20 points, a Senate race in Alabama, the governor’s mansion of New Jersey, and the Washington state Senate.
  • Recent polls show Democrats leading Senate races not just in Nevada but also in Arizona and Tennessee, and at least within striking distance in Texas.

Politics is complicated, but in this case, a fairly simple and reductive answer is clearly correct: Republicans’ problem is Donald Trump.

Trump’s approval ratings have improved somewhat since political conversation moved on from the GOP’s unpopular health care bill and their unpopular tax bill, but he remains unpopular with a net approval rating that’s 12 to 13 points underwater. Not only is this net approval rating bad, it’s worse than Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, Ford, Carter, Reagan, Bush, Clinton, Bush, and Obama were doing at this point in their presidencies. Indeed, in net approval, not only is Trump further underwater at this point in his presidency than any of his postwar predecessors, but this has been true every single day he has been in office.

He’s unpopular even though objective conditions in the country are, in most respects, fairly benign. The president is behaving inappropriately on a near-daily basis, profiting personally from the presidency, attempting to stymie a legitimate inquiry into Russian involvement in the 2016 campaign, and constantly demonstrating near-zero comprehension of the main issues in American politics.

People quite rightly find this alarming, and with Republicans lining up near uniformly to defend him, the voters are lashing out and punishing them. That means that while of course Democrats running for office should talk about things other than Trump, it makes absolutely no sense to ignore the elephant in the room.

Impeachment is a pointless trap

One problem with impeachment is that as unpopular as Trump is, impeaching him is about equally as unpopular.

That’s why, perversely, drawing attention to the possibility of removing Trump from office could be a smart way for Republicans to do their best to neutralize the Trump issue in the campaign. Of course, no tactic will fully undo the damage, but Republicans can plausibly hope that the combination of a favorable map and incumbency effects will let them survive a moderately unfavorable national political climate — they just need to ensure it’s not a massively unfavorable one.

Sometimes a political movement wants to take a chance on something unpopular just because they believe it’s substantively important.

But a 2019 impeachment drive wouldn’t be important at all — it’d be futile. To remove a president from office requires 67 Senate votes, meaning it would need to be a fully bipartisan undertaking, and there’s just no evidence that anything like a cross-party anti-Trump consensus is emerging.

Things might change in the future, of course, but as long as Trump retains the support of his party (and if anything, the trend is in the direction of Republicans becoming more supportive of Trump), then an impeachment push isn’t going to amount to anything, no matter how much the Democratic base wants it.

Yet with anti-Trump fervor powering the resistance, Democratic candidates for office can’t just ignore the president’s unfitness for office and his aberrant conduct.

Democrats need a plan for dealing with Trump

Democrats’ biggest successes in special elections thus far have come in deep-red constituencies like Alabama and western Pennsylvania. In races like these, trying to take Trump off the table as an issue is such a no-brainer for a Democratic candidate that base voters are happy to forgive it.

But a more typical 2018 race will feature a Republican incumbent (rather than an open seat) in a district where Trump is at least moderately unpopular. The task for Democrats will be to mobilize their core voters to turn out while winning over (or at least depressing) the vote of some Trump skeptics who’ve chosen Republicans in the past. You’re not going to do that by ignoring Trump, but all indications are that you’re not going to win by promising to impeach him either.

What the situation calls for, instead, is a list of specific, non-futile measures a Democratic majority could take to check Trump.

That starts with ensuring that the work of special counsel Robert Mueller and his team won’t be stopped by presidential whim. If Mueller is fired, Congress can and should take up the very same questions his team was exploring — they could even hire Mueller if he wants the job — and ensure that whatever it is about the investigation that makes Trump so nervous won’t be covered up.

But even more important in some ways, it means reminding people that Russia happens to be the one issue that congressional Republicans were (briefly) interested in scrutinizing rather than the only issue that warrants investigation. Congressional committees both could and should use their subpoena powers to try to understand who is paying the president and why, rather than sitting idly by and allow him to accept bribes in secret via his range of private clubs and other business interests.

It’s possible that a thorough airing of Trump’s financial dealings and Russia-related matters won’t turn up any new, noteworthy information, in which case Republicans will keep backing him and he’ll either be beaten at the polls in 2020 or he won’t. It’s also possible that the reason Trump is keeping all this stuff covered up is that he is hiding incredibly damning secrets whose revelation will change Republicans’ thinking.

The crucial thing, both politically and substantively, is to be clear that impeachment is ultimately a question for Republicans, not for Democrats. Without GOP support, there’s no way to remove Trump from office, and even if Trump were removed, Democrats still would not be thrilled with a Mike Pence presidency.

What a Democratic majority can do — and what the current GOP majority has refused to do— is ensure meaningful oversight of the executive branch.

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