Should Democrats Impeach President Trump?

Nancy Pelosi has a tough decision to make. Photo: Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images

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I’m your host, Benjamin Hart, and today I’m talking with Sarah JonesEd Kilgore, and Eric Levitz about whether Democrats should take the impeachment plunge.

Ben: Ed wrote yesterday: “Make no mistake, the Mueller findings and the disgraceful manner in which Barr and the Justice Department handled them will ratchet up support for using impeachment proceedings to pick up the banner the special counsel handed them.” And indeed, that’s what’s happening as we speak. Now that evidence of Trump’s misdeeds has been given the Mueller imprimatur, more Democrats seem at least to be entertaining the possibility, with Elizabeth Warren the highest-profile one so far to come out and call for impeachment to begin. Many commentators agree with her, including New York’s Andrew Sullivan. Here’s a representative sentiment from that faction, courtesy of Brian Beutler at Crooked Media: “At some point soon, Democratic leaders will have to reckon with the fact that the founders created the impeachment power for precisely this moment. That impeachment is their basic obligation … if they try to run out the clock, or settle on the claim that impeachment just isn’t worth it, they will do incalculable damage to themselves and the country.”

One group that doesn’t seem so keen on this idea: Democratic leadership. Nancy Pelosi had all but taken the option off the tableweeks before we saw Mueller’s report. And yesterday, House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer angered a lot of people by saying “going forward on impeachment is not worthwhile at this point.” Their argument is that impeachment will only boost Trump’s reelection efforts, and that Democrats are better off focusing single-mindedly on beating him at the ballot box, not pursuing this noble but doomed cause.

So, with that long-winded intro out of the way: Where do you all fall on this question right now?

Ed: I think Pelosi’s posture, and Jerry Nadler’s, makes sense: no rush to impeachment, at least until the impact of the Mueller report sinks in (or doesn’t) in public opinion, but don’t rule it out either (as Hoyer would do). As I said yesterday, Trump deserves impeachment, but that doesn’t mean it’s a good idea politically.

Sarah: They at least have to be open to the possibility. Impeachment is unquestionably justified, so the party has to decide whether the possibility of backlash outweighs its responsibility to justice. I don’t envy them that choice.

There’s a sound argument on behalf of going ahead with impeachment proceedings, I’d add. Trump’s base doesn’t outnumber the Democratic Party’s overall. They might worry about backlash, but they should also consider the likelihood that impeachment might help motivate its own base. They can still do that and run on bread-and-butter issues like health care or a higher minimum wage.

Eric: Yeah. Precisely because Trump is so deserving of impeachment, the Democrats are duty-bound to prioritize actually removing him from office over demonstrating their commitment to doing so through a doomed impeachment procedure.

At the moment, there is zero reason to believe that the Senate will convict Trump. Thus, the fastest way to evict this criminal from the White House is to beat him at the ballot box in 2020. If impeaching him will help with that task, Democrats should do it. If it would come at a political cost, they shouldn’t. For the moment, I’m having a hard time deciding what I think the politically expedient thing to do here is.

Ed: I really can’t imagine that the Democratic base is going to need a lot of revving up in 2020, and if Democrats remain angrily divided on impeachment, that could sap energy too.

Sarah: I’m not comfortable assuming that the base will be as revved up as it needs to be in 2020.

Ed: Well, if the prospect of a second term for Donald J. Trump doesn’t do it, nothing on earth will.

Eric: I think they should definitely continue to investigate and hold hearings designed to draw attention to Trumpian malfeasance. The question is whether to do that through the specific procedure of impeachment. The downside of that mechanism (in my understanding) is that it locks you into a very rigid, time-consuming process — and would inevitably end with the Senate acquitting Trump, thereby potentially signaling to low-information swing voters that this whole impeachment thing was just a partisan circus.

The upside is that impeachment would make cable news pay much closer attention to your investigations, and possibly help signal to voters the severity of Trump’s misdeeds.

Sarah: It would presumably help Democrats craft a corruption message.

Ed: Well, there are multiple avenues for that.

Ben: Proponents of impeachment seem to be arguing two central points: (1) If impeachment doesn’t happen now, in close to the exact circumstances the Founders envisioned for this sort of thing, it is rendered meaningless in the future. (2) It would not actually be politically harmful, since it would expose the president’s malfeasance even more thoroughly to voters.

Ed: Regarding the second argument: Again, you don’t need impeachment proceedings to expose the president’s misdeeds, which are ongoing. Regarding the first, this is the argument I heard a lot of on Twitter after my last piece, put bluntly as: “Screw politics, you hack! Let’s do the Right Thing.” Progressives need to ask themselves if making it more likely that Donald Trump is in office in 2025 is “the Right Thing!”

Eric: Point 1 doesn’t make sense to me. Impeachment is “meaningless” because the Founders were dum-dums who didn’t anticipate the advent of political parties in the United States, let alone ideological polarization.

Ben: Here’s what worries me, politically speaking: There’s ample evidence over the last two years showing that highlighting Trump’s personal flaws, corruption, and criminality is not the optimal way to connect with voters. Nor do voters care much at all about the Russia investigation. Democrats won the midterms by focusing like a laser on health care and barely even mentioning the president. And I agree with Eric that if impeachment happened, his inevitable Senate acquittal will likely be damaging — even if only a little — for Democrats.

Sarah: I agree that voters don’t care that much about Russia or Mueller. That was almost exclusively the provenance of, I don’t know, call it the Pod Save America demographic. Which is a small demographic!

I maintain that a message about Trump’s corruption should tie into messages about the economy. It shouldn’t even be difficult for the party to do that! Look at this man, who is obscenely wealthy and has only helped obscenely wealthy people, as your premiums go through the roof. I haven’t actually seen the Democrats really try that kind of messaging. They’ve just sidestepped Trump altogether, at least while campaigning, and that won’t be possible in 2020.

But if Democrats are worried about alienating his base — they aren’t going to win his base, probably! The best they can hope for is to flip Obama-Trump voters back to whoever the Dem nominee is, and I don’t think impeachment is fatal to that goal.

Eric: I think Trump being a bad man resonates quite a bit with voters. He wouldn’t have a 55 percent approval rating on the economy, but a 40 percent one on overall job performance if voters didn’t care a lot about how he’s a hateful ole weirdo. And it seems to me that visceral disgust with the fact of his presidency was the primary force behind the Dems midterm gains. It seems like the health-care stuff helped Dems make further inroads, at the margin, but the lifeblood of the resistance is anti-Trumpism.

I think there’s a case that Trump does the job of mobilizing Trump-averse voters against Trump plenty well by himself, so Democrats should focus on health care. But I’m not 100 percent sure that that’s the case.

Ben: In a humming economy, you do need some kind of alternate vision and messaging. And I’d argue that, as Sarah said, tying Trump directly to his very unpopular policies is the best way of attacking him personally, not focusing on his moral character, which impeachment would do. Midterms are mostly referendums on the president, but a presidential election is a little different.

Ed: Yes, presidential elections are comparative.

Eric: Yeah, in a general, Democrats will need to give voters a clear choice: Bolivarian socialism or barbarism.

Ben: Haha.

Eric: Dems should make 2020 a referendum on Maduro.

Sarah: The GOP will probably make sure of that anyway.

Ed: I think the point Sarah’s making is interesting and illustrative. Like a lot of progressives, she’s not happy with the prospective Democratic message/strategy against Trump. I think (and I’m not at all attributing this to Sarah) some progressives are seizing on impeachment as a sort of all-purpose substitute for a more aggressive  strategy/message. If we can’t have a clear fight against corporate power and corruption (or fill in your favorite thought), maybe impeachment will do.

My bottom line is that we know as certainly as anything we can ever know in politics that Trump will not be removed from office via impeachment proceedings. If Democrats are not absolutely sure that going in this direction will increase the odds of beating him in 2020, it makes no sense to me.

Sarah: I do think it’s fair to say that among the party’s activists — and leftists who are willing to work within the party to try to push it in their direction — there’s a perception that the party’s leadership is relatively toothless. I also think that perception is mostly rooted in fact.

Ed: Yeah, but is impeachment the right way to get toothy?

Sarah: It’s a fair question! I think they see it as one tool among many.

Eric: There’s an extremely online resistance contingent that is deeply invested in Mueller and impeachment specifically. And then there is a progressive left that is more broadly offended by Democratic timidity, in general, and never misses an opportunity to deride the leadership as spineless wimps (I agree with this contingent maybe 75 percent of the time).

Ed: Something we haven’t really discussed is the absolute certainty that initiating impeachment proceedings will rev up Trump’s base to an insane level, too. From their point of view — and we are already hearing this — the incessant argument will be that Democrats fear the next election and thus are trying to reverse the last one. The later in the cycle we get, this argument will be attractive to some swing voters, too.

Sarah: I’m not convinced that his base is big enough for this to be a definitive concern. We’re still talking about a president who lost the popular vote.

Ed: His base is still about 35-40 percent of the electorate. Turnout on both sides is going to matter, and again, some swing voters really, really, really won’t like the idea of impeachment proceedings right smack in the middle of a presidential campaign. Is anyone so sure impeachment will uniquely boost Democratic turnout as to risk the downside, knowing for a fact that it will fail to remove him from office? I’m not.

Ben: Do you foresee this being a major issue in the Democratic primaries? Or will interest and outrage dramatically fade in a couple of months as we get more into full-swing campaign season?

Eric: I think it will be. Or rather, I think it will be a major issue in down-ballot Democratic primaries.

Sarah: I think it’ll be an issue.

Eric: Progressive House challengers are going to capitalize on the rabidly pro-impeachment donor base. As for the presidential race, I’m not sure. After all, all those candidates are sort of invested in the idea that they, alone, can free us from Trump.

Ed: I fear you’re both right. If you are, say, Kirsten Gillibrand (just to pick one candidate who’s not doing well), might picking up Tom Steyer’s “impeachment or bust” mantra make good practical sense?

Eric: Yeah, someone probably will, but I think the front-runners aren’t going to want to talk about it .

I will say, one of the stronger political arguments for impeachment is that it would force Cory Gardner and Susan Collins to take a stance on the issue. Which might cause them some amount of discomfort. Although, I think Gardner is probably a goner — and Collins basically safe — either way.

Ben: What’s the best Democratic response to the Mueller report if impeachment doesn’t happen?

Ed: I’m going to write about censuring Trump as an alternative approach this weekend. I’m not sold on it, but needs to be discussed.

Sarah: What does censuring accomplish?

Ed: Again, I’m not sold on it, but censure might accomplish as much as impeachment as a high-profile vehicle for exposing Trump’s sins, and also puts the Republicans you were talking about even more on the spot.

Eric: “Cory Gardner wouldn’t even censure Donald Trump for undermining a federal investigation (or what have you)” might be okay 2020 TV-ad fodder.

Sarah: Yeah, I just don’t think that will mollify people who want to see a substantive response. But better than nothing, perhaps.

Ed: Will those same people be mollified by a failed impeachment process? Not at all sure about that.

Sarah: Certainly, some people did seem to think the Mueller report was going to have that effect. And of course it was never going to work like that.

Should Democrats Impeach President Trump?