democratic debates

Why Impeachment Is a Difficult Debate Topic for Democrats

Will impeachment dominate the next Democratic debate? Photo: Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images

The fourth Democratic presidential candidates’ debate, which will take place on Tuesday in Westerville, Ohio, is going to be held in the shadow of the impeachment drama unfolding in Washington. A key question for moderators (CNN’s Erin Burnett and Anderson Cooper and the New York Times’ Marc Lacey) and debaters alike will be how and how much to talk about this topic. They cannot just ignore it; that would be the functional equivalent of a debate shortly after 9/11 that shirked national-security issues. That’s how big a deal it is when a serious threat of presidential impeachment develops, and given Donald Trump’s dominant presence in the consciousness of Democrats as well as Republicans, it’s a megaissue. But there are multiple reasons this won’t be easy to debate next week.

1. The Candidates All Agree on Impeachment

Earlier in the presidential-campaign cycle, support for impeachment proceedings against Trump was a controversial proposition — so much so that in April when Elizabeth Warren became the first in the huge field to call the Mueller report sufficient grounds for an impeachment inquiry, it was something of a sensation (yes, Tom Steyer spent an impressive share of his large fortune promoting impeachment long before that, but he did not become a candidate until July).

After Pelosi formally announced impeachment proceedings on September 24, impeachment skeptics Joe Biden and Tulsi Gabbard made it unanimous, with all 19 candidates in agreement with this step.

There are elements of impeachment strategy that are still debatable among Democrats, such as the scope of the inquiry (and of subsequent articles of impeachment), and its timing, and perhaps how House Democrats should deal with Trump’s obstruction. But this is pretty dry and technical stuff, and the candidates probably don’t want to look like they are second-guessing Pelosi. Expressing fury at Trump is always a good idea for Democratic candidates, but a little bit goes a long way.

You can expect Steyer to make a big deal out of his early efforts to pressure the House to impeach Trump, but beyond that (and perhaps Warren’s similar claim to pro-impeachment sentiments before it was politically safe), no one really has bragging rights.

2. Trump’s Removal Would Fundamentally Change the Democratic Primary

The odds remain very high that if Trump is impeached by the House (a very good bet at this point), he will be quickly acquitted by the Senate. But it would be in questionable taste for Democratic presidential candidates to publicly admit that right now, at a time when some observers see Trump drifting into peril and Republicans (mostly privately) expressing doubts about his conduct and his political strategy.

So in talking about Trump and impeachment, the candidates vying to become his vanquisher in November 2020 are in the awkward position of discussing and promoting an event that would make their own competition wildly different if not irrelevant. What are they supposed to do? Boast of how they will tear Mike Pence a new one? Make the general election a referendum on why it took Republicans so long to abandon their corrupt leader? It’s a tough set of questions — again, for moderators as well as for debaters.

3. Five of the Debaters Are Potential “Jurors” in a Senate Trial of the President

It’s a convention rather than any sort of constitutional requirement, but in the past, senators looking forward to impeachment trials tended to make no public statements about the matter. This is in accordance with the popular notion that an impeachment is like a criminal indictment and the trial is like — well, a criminal trial. This is an analogy, not a real description, of the impeachment process (which is unlike any other quasi-judicial proceeding), but it has some power: In the impeachment trial of Bill Clinton, senators made speeches explaining their votes in a closed session; they were only made public after the trial had ended. Here’s how the New York Times explained the Senate’s pretensions of objectivity in the Clinton trial:

One after another, as their names are called alphabetically, the senators rise behind their desks and utter the first words they have spoken about the matter in public session since the impeachment trial began. No speeches. No explanation. Just “guilty” or “not guilty.”

Procedures for a prospective trial of Trump will be determined by the Senate itself on a simple majority vote once impeachment occurs, which means Mitch McConnell and his Republicans can call all the shots if they wish and can remain united. It’s unlikely he will do anything to make life easy for the senators running for president, so if he can impose some sort of gag rule, he will.

The only sitting House member among those who qualified for Tuesday’s debate is Tulsi Gabbard, who may not add her distinct perspective on impeachment because she is threatening to boycott the event as part of a DNC–media effort to “rig” the nomination process.

4. One of the Candidates Is a Key Figure in the Impeachment Saga

Still another factor that makes any debate over impeachment next week difficult is that Joe Biden, via his son Hunter, is himself one of the dramatis personae in the impeachment saga. Indeed, how it all plays out could have a significant impact for good or for ill on Biden’s own campaign.

Knowing that, the former veep’s campaign is not-so-subtly warning his rivals to stay away from saying anything in the debate that could reinforce Trump’s savage attacks on both Bidens, as Bloomberg reports:

Joe Biden has a warning for his Democratic rivals as they prepare for the fourth televised debate next week: Stay away from the issue of Ukraine and Hunter Biden …

An aide to Biden said that any candidate who “calls themselves a ‘Democrat’” and repeats what the aide said were “discredited lies” about Biden and his son “would be making a profound statement about themselves.”

But a number of Biden’s rivals had already said critical things about Hunter Biden’s sketchy career as an international wheeler and dealer, before it assumed such a central position in the case for impeachment:

As Trump has escalated his attacks against Joe and Hunter Biden, Biden’s Democratic rivals have been walking a tightrope. All of them are campaigning against Trump and most have called for his impeachment. Yet getting the chance to challenge the incumbent president requires first winning the nomination. So many of the candidates have criticized Biden for “allowing” Hunter Biden to serve on the board of Burisma Holdings, a Ukrainian gas company, while his father was vice president, saying any appearance of a conflict of interest is problematic.

If any of the debaters fall off that tightrope and go after Hunter, his father could very well exploit the moment to depict himself as the victim of an infamous Trump smear, and also as the candidate Trump fears enough to risk impeachment to smear. Suffice it to say there is some nervous debate prep under way on the subject.

Perhaps the moderators for the Ohio debate will decide it’s all too difficult to delve into impeachment, and the candidates will skirt it as well. But on a stage holding 12 candidates hungry for attention, they must all deal with the possibility that someone will bring it up and run with it.

Why Impeachment Is a Difficult Debate Topic for Democrats