The Democrats’ inquiry into the impeachment of President Donald Trump is a political trap. Whether morally, legally or politically justified, it is a trap and will cost the Democrats votes in the 2020 election.
In May, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, speaking at Cornell University, warned that “Trump is goading us to impeach him. ... That’s what he’s doing. Every single day, he’s just like taunting, taunting, taunting because he knows that it would be very divisive in the country, but he just doesn’t care. He just wants to solidify his base.”
And solidify his base it will. Democrats have been lured into pursuing an impeachment inquiry against the president, following allegations that he asked the Ukrainian government to investigate a political rival and withheld military aid to pressure Ukraine to acquiescence. Trump has successfully framed the inquiry to his supporters as a political witch hunt (hence the Trump campaign’s “Halloween Witch Hunt Party” on Wednesday in Manheim).
Legal experts tend to believe that Trump did abuse his authority. For example, Dan McLaughlin, writing for the conservative National Review, argues that while it is legal for a president to pressure a foreign government into cooperating with a federal investigation, Trump crossed the line both by coercing a foreign government to investigate a U.S. citizen and by asking a head of state to cooperate with a private investigation by the president’s personal attorney.
Yet, there is enough plausible deniability into wrongdoing that those motivated to believe in the president’s innocence can find reason to do so. Indeed, recent polls show that Republicans are strongly committed to defending the president. Not only do they not believe that impeachment hearings are unwarranted, they also believe that Republican members of Congress should defend the president.
The intensity of Republicans’ sentiments will, in fact, mobilize his base. Trump’s tactic of refusing to cooperate with the House’s inquiry further delegitimatizes it, adding to the perception among Republicans that this is nothing more than partisan politics.
Will the impeachment inquiry mobilize the Democrats in the same way? In my view, the answer is no for two reasons. First, attacking an enemy does not produce the same energy among supporters as does defending one’s hero from attack. Defenders are more morally righteous than attackers.
In this regard, the Democrats simply cannot win. If they are unsuccessful in bringing impeachment charges against Trump, or if the Senate fails to convict him, Trump will use this as evidence that the charges were politically motivated with no real substance. He will claim victory and rally his supporters in celebration of his triumph over his enemies.
If he is found guilty by the Senate and removed from office, he will become a political martyr. Republicans will charge the Democrats with overturning the will of the people for political gain, and this will mobilize Republicans to support Trump’s successor. The impeachment threat has already been leveraged to raise more than $27 million in September for the Republican National Committee.
While Democrats will try to claim victory over a Trump impeachment, the victory is too diffuse. Celebrating a party win does not produce the same energy as celebrating the individual exoneration of a political idol.
Second, Democrats lose in that the impeachment process prevents them from developing a positive message and clear platform. There is some agreement among political analysts and some of the Democratic primary candidates that being the opposition party is not enough to win an election. Indeed, voters do not rank impeachment as their most important concern. They are much more concerned about health care, the economy, immigration and the environment. Democrats must articulate a clear platform on these issues and demonstrate that solving these problems for their constituents is more of a priority than hyperpartisan battles.
Republicans are already feeding this narrative, charging the Democrats with distracting Congress from addressing the issues people care about. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell tweeted that
“Democrats’ impeachment obsession is blocking urgent work for American families.”
While Democrats have countered that they can pursue multiple goals at the same time, they are at the mercy of the media, which will inevitably focus more on the impeachment than on their policy initiatives. Public perception of how Democrats are spending their time will be more important than actual productivity; messages about positive platforms will be drowned out by the political drama.
Whether successful or not, impeachment proceedings hurt Democrats at the polls. And Trump seems to know this.
April Kelly-Woessner is a professor and chairwoman of the political science department at Elizabethtown College. She also is a correspondent for LNP. Email: email@example.com.