As Congress begins its fall session, beltway insiders and Democratic leadership are waking up to the fact that a political earthquake is rumbling under their feet.
For many months now, when it comes to impeachment and holding President Trump accountable for his criminal behavior outlined in the Mueller report, Democrats have largely been trying to fence without a sword, thinking they can appease the public by carefully maneuvering and dancing around impeachment while avoiding ruffling up Trump’s base. Corey Lewandowski’s brazen dodging of questions regarding the president’s actions to obstruct justice show the perils of this approach.
One would think establishment Democrats would have learned a thing or two about energizing the base of their own party by now, but instead leadership has continued to give lip-service to one of the biggest unifying issues within the Democratic Party while throwing cold water on its base and abdicating their constitutional responsibility.
Last Thursday’s vote by the House Judiciary Committee to establish rules and procedures for the forthcoming investigations into Trump’s conduct was a welcome development. It is a sign that some within the party are ready to fight alongside voters to hold Trump accountable.
Yet it appears Democratic leadership continues to equivocate, failing to do what’s so glaringly right and push to impeach Trump.
In October of 2017, support for impeachment was at roughly 40% among American voters and 75% among Democratic voters, which is similar to today’s polling data on impeachment. Many pundits will be quick to say that because nothing has changed in the polls, nothing should change with Democratic leadership’s strategy.
What few in D.C. have reckoned with is that the steadily strong levels of support exist without the majority party in the House using its weight to shape public opinion. On the contrary, Democratic leadership has actively tried to turn the public against impeachment. But as we saw during summer recess, members of the Democratic Caucus and their constituents aren’t buying it any longer.
As American University Professor Allan Lichtman has pointed out, is it quite possible that Democrats are “fundamentally wrong about the politics of impeachment and their prospects for victory in 2020.”
Far from activating Trump’s base and turning some independents against Democrats, impeachment might indeed be the main path to ousting Trump in 2020.
History shows us that impeachment even without a conviction in the Senate is a politically potent tool, if not a moral necessity when the moment calls for it. The impeachment of Andrew Johnson — a man who wanted to return America to “a white man’s country again,” as Yoni Appelbaum has described — helped strip public support away from Johnson and the morally bankrupt Democratic Party of the time even though it didn’t end in conviction. Impeachment was crucial to paving the wave for Ulysses S. Grant to win the presidency and continue Reconstruction after the Civil War.
Similar to Johnson’s impeachment as it relates to public sentiment, in the case of Nixon, public approval for impeachment only reached majority support after the House Judiciary Committee voted for impeachment. With a majority of the public believing Trump obstructed justice, and half the country believing he’s unfit for office, the public is likely more sympathetic to impeaching Trump than leadership wants to believe.
Even if it doesn’t result in a conviction and knowing it almost certainly will not, having a President who is perceived by a growing majority of the country as a criminal would be a difficult position for the president and Republican Party to defend.
If Democratic leadership is ultimately trying to protect “frontline” Democrats — which is to say, Democrats in competitive districts — in their reelection bids by tampering down the energy around impeachment, it’s a questionable move at best. These Democrats will be painted by the right as “socialist anti-Trumpers” no matter what the House does.
More important, the precedent of not impeaching the most corrupt president in U.S. history has its own risks for our democracy as well. Democrats must come to terms with the fact that for as much as pundits might say impeachment is a political risk, there might very well be a bigger political risk if they choose to stall and avoid pushing impeachment with the zeal it deserves.
Mack is lead strategist of Need to Impeach and Arriola is executive director of Need to Impeach