For so long “If to impeach the president” was the question, then the question was “When?” Now with Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s decision inquiries against Donald Trump, the question is “Why now?”
Maybe till now Pelosi’s decision not to pursue impeachment of Donald Trump made electoral sense. But increasingly a 2020 impeachment next summer just as the presidential general election is kicking into high gear makes sense as a tool to mobilize the Democratic base, weaken Donald Trump, and place pressure on Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and the rest of the Republican Senate.
Despite calls by many in the Democratic Party base and in the House to impeach Trump, Pelosi resisted it. This was the case even after the Mueller Report documented 11 instances of obstruction of justice. Pelosi’s justification ranged from “He’s just not worth it” to there are not enough votes in the Senate to convict or the fear that impeachment would produce a Republican base backlash that would all but guarantee Trump’s re-election.
A new calculus
However, the revelations of Trump seeking to leverage military aid to Ukraine in return for the latter investigating Joe Biden changes the calculus. It does so for several reasons. One, the gravity of the problem is greater with apparently clearer evidence of the president inviting a foreign government to interfere in U.S. elections. Two, it involves direct abuse of power by the president to leverage U.S. military aid for personal partisan purposes. Three, for Democrats, it is a direct attack by Trump on a presidential front runner and if the president is not sanctioned or punished for that, who knows what other dirty tricks might occur.
But additionally, two other variables come into play. The first is that now a majority of House Democrats support impeachment. Two, it is the issue of time. Timed precisely, a Senate trial would get maximum political payoff for Democrats. This is why Pelosi is reconsidering impeachment now.
Assume Democrats had moved to impeach Trump earlier this year after the Mueller Report came out. Perhaps Trump is impeached in the House, but then the Senate acquits. Trump would then be able to use the acquittal as vindication that he did nothing wrong, and also then accuse Democrats that the impeachment was simply a partisan ploy. The result? Political backlash and Republican mobilization, especially in a few swing states such as Ohio and Florida, thereby re-electing Trump.
An alternative scenario
Now consider a new scenario. The House begins impeachment hearings later this year and into next. During that time perhaps new information about Trump emerges. Sometime in the summer 2020 the House votes on articles of impeachment just as the Republican national convention takes place and the general election starts. Here, much in the same way the Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign was dogged by the on and off and on again investigation by the FBI, Trump begins his general election campaign facing a Senate trial, which would distract his campaign.
In addition, a Senate trial in later summer or the fall would be a terrific way for Democrats to pressure McConnell and the Republican majority for control of that body. In 2020, there will be 35 senators facing election, with 23 of them Republican. McConnell and the Republicans will face a difficult choice: hold a trial and acquit or refuse to hold a trial.
With the former option, a vote to acquit can be used against Republicans in a battle for the Senate. With the latter option, McConnell – who is also up for re-election – looks as though he is playing politics or refusing to perform his constitutional duties. Either way, with the timing so close to an election, it pressures Republicans on their votes to acquit or not, providing last-minute motivation for Democrats to vote. Moreover, to ensure the Democratic base and swing voters are motivated, especially suburban female voters who drove the 2016 Democratic victory, make sure that at least one of the articles of impeachment also includes something about sexual harassment, Justice Brett Kavanaugh, or something similar.
No doubt this strategy runs the risk of a Republican base backlash. But given that the Democratic Party base is larger than the Republican one, and given polls suggesting independents do not like Trump, such a move by Pelosi and the Democrats makes sense, potentially handing them the House, Senate, and the presidency. Accomplish that and repeal the Senate filibuster rule and the Democrats are as free to obliterate the Trump legacy as Trump sought to do with Obama’s.
David Schultz is a Hamline University professor of political science. His latest book is “Presidential Swing States: Why Only Ten Matter.”
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