DANIEL VAUGHAN: The Democrats are all-in on impeachment as they look to 2020

A couple of weeks into 2019, I wrote a column entitled, “Impeachment could be the wedge issue that divides the Democratic field.”

In that piece, I was looking for a potential issue that was divisive enough to allow a presidential candidate the space to polarize the Democratic field and gain an advantage — similar to immigration in 2015 and 2016. The best perspective for that, I thought at the time, was impeachment.

In early January, the new Democratic Congress was feeling both itself and the prospects of impeaching Donald Trump. Nancy Pelosi, not wanting to expose the moderate wing of the Democratic Party to the excesses of the hardcore leftists in the party, quickly moved to squash impeachment talk.

Whatever the merits of impeachment, it was politically toxic, and Pelosi needed to protect her caucus.

But as I wrote in January, there’s a disconnect between the Democratic base and this political reality:

That extreme disconnect between the Democratic Party, leadership, pundits, and its base of support could provide an even more prominent lane to run in than Trump found with immigration. There’s a vacuum with this policy point in the party, and some Democrat — or someone outside the party — can use this issue to create a plurality of voters for themselves.

What I saw at the time as a potential lane for a presidential contender is emerging more now as a schism between the Democratic base and the moderate and swing-district representatives in the House.

The progressive base is creating fissures with every other faction of the party that isn’t entirely on board with impeachment — and challenging Pelosi in the process. As Politico reported last week:

Pelosi’s decision followed months of Democratic infighting. She had also faced a barrage of criticism from the party’s activist base, which had begun to question her once-impeccable progressive credentials.

Pelosi’s newest ploy is to agree to an impeachment inquiry while avoiding any immediate votes on the issues surrounding impeachment.

As I noted last week, Pelosi’s “impeachment inquiry” gambit doesn’t change anything logistically — it’s all a rhetorical change meant to contain the progressive base while still protecting the swing-district representatives. Democrats already had all the committees pointed in an impeachment direction, now they have the rhetoric from Pelosi supporting them, instead of telling them all not to say the dreaded “i” word.

It’s a gamble on the part of Pelosi. The upside is pretty clear; at a minimum, the impeachment inquiry puts all of Trump’s conduct under a microscope. Democrats can spend considerable time and effort in Congress and on television prosecuting a case of constant corruption and abuse of power in the White House. If the arguments stick, it will drive home Trump’s negative favorability ratings and remind Americans of why they, generally speaking, dislike the president.

But the risks are also evident. Josh Kraushaar, the ace political analyst at National Journal, points out: “Polls have consistently shown a clear majority of Americans opposing impeachment… By encouraging many swing-district moderates to go on record in support of impeachment hearings, she’s putting the House in play if the gambit backfires.”

If the House pushed a gameplan in 2018 of talking kitchen table issues like health care, they’d likely be poised to grow their majority in the 2020 elections.

But now? Democrats are pushing all their chips into the center of the table in a high-stakes poker match. They’re all-in on impeachment, and they’re discounting the strategy that won them a midterm majority in the House. It’s anyone’s guess how this all goes down politically, as Kyle Cheney, Politico’s congressional reporter, notes:

The mix of an impeachment process with an election year has never occurred in American politics, so its effects are virtually unknowable.

The American political system has never experienced impeachment committee meetings or votes in an election year. I tend to agree with Johnathan V. Last on this point: “We have no idea where this impeachment inquiry will go. What other information will be divulged. How the various parties will react. Or what the downstream effects will be.”

Impeachment will shift everything from how House candidates run their local races to how the top-tier candidates in the Democratic presidential primaries attack one another.

My prediction was that impeachment would give some primary candidate a new lane to drive in while the establishment continued to oppose impeachment. For now, rhetorically anyway, the Democratic establishment is backing impeachment. That will shift the ground underneath these candidates.

It also makes the 2020 election almost entirely about Donald Trump, his actions, and his first four years in office. The Elizabeth Warrens and Bernie Sanders of the left who want to talk incessantly about socialism and all its merits are now going to have to prosecute the case against Trump.

Meanwhile, if you’re not a top-tier candidate or a senator, you get left out of this entire process with no voice in what happens.

It could also reopen the field to candidates like Kamala Harris, who have collapsed without a clear path until now.

Everything has changed politically, even if nothing has changed logistically. The American system is all-in on impeachment before an election year. Whatever the outcome, you will be witnessing history over the next 13 months.

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