DANIEL VAUGHAN: Impeachment could be the wedge issue that divides the Democratic field

One of the lessons we all learned ahead of the 2016 presidential election was that when you’re trying to gain momentum among a large field of candidates, you need to find a policy position that differentiates you from the pack.

Donald Trump was able to spot that hole in the GOP by attacking a fissure in the party over immigration. Now, as we look toward 2020, two lanes are taking shape among Democrats that some candidate will be smart to exploit.

To understand these Democratic lanes, you first have to understand the Republican path that Donald Trump saw. Early on in the Republican primaries ahead of 2016, National Review and Bloomberg opinion columnist Ramesh Ponnuru found a trend, reporting:

Gallup just responded to a question I sent the organization for some numbers on this. It turns out that as of January 2015, 49 percent of Republicans want less immigration, 35 percent want immigration kept flat, and 15 percent want higher levels of immigration. There are more Republican presidential candidates representing that 15 percent than that 49 percent.

Notice that crucial fact: although the Republican presidential field was still incredibly large in September 2015, on this one issue, the field had shifted to an incredibly small constituency. And while immigration isn’t everyone’s top priority, when half of the pool of voters is going unserved on that one issue, it creates a vacuum. Donald Trump expertly exploited that vacuum.

We’re still several months away from the Democratic primaries for 2020 heating up to full speed, but we can look for similar wedge issues among possible contenders — issues where the base of the Democrats wants one thing, but the 2020 field and Democratic leadership want another.

One stands out as most prominent.

A recent poll by Politico and the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health asked respondents to choose what top-ranked policy items they thought the new Congress should prioritize. Turns out, neither impeachment nor even the investigations of President Trump ranked high in importance among Americans.

But for our purposes, the most interesting numbers come up over impeachment: overall, only 38 percent of voters believe that “Impeaching President Trump” is an “extremely important priority.” That number sinks to 14 percent when examing only Republicans, and 34 percent among independents.

But impeaching Trump was called extremely important by 64 percent of Democrats.

That means that nearly two-thirds of the Democratic base believes impeachment, though lower ranked than other issues, is a high priority.

Contrast that majority with Democratic leadership. A Bloomberg story on the topic led with the headline: “Pelosi and other Democratic leaders tread carefully on impeachment.” They quoted multiple leaders, from Pelosi and Schumer on down, who are openly telling the party — and their base — that they aren’t interested in nor are they pursuing impeachment.

Their reasoning is simple: places like the liberal Brookings Institution are telling Dems to run away from impeachment. Since Democrats don’t run the Senate, the odds of successfully impeaching Trump right now are near zero, and a sure political loser. Democrat leaders believe any effort toward that goal would help Republicans re-elect Trump, like the GOP did with Bill Clinton in the ’90s.

But while Democratic leadership, the elite punditry, and members of the media are all trying to help Democrats by preventing them from jumping on the impeachment train, fissures in the party are erupting.

Most notably, newly elected Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-MI) proudly told her supporters after her swearing-in: “We’re going to impeach the motherf****r.” The New York Times lamented this turn of events in their reporting with the headline: “Rashida Tlaib’s Expletive-Laden Cry to Impeach Trump Upends Democrats’ Talking Points.”

Indeed, Tlaib was one of the first to break rank with a party desperately trying to stay on message and avoid the “I” word. But while Pelosi may be able to reign in a member of her party in the House, she can’t control the Democratic primaries.

Impeachment or prosecution of the Trumps may be low on the pecking order for Democratic leadership — but remember, nearly two-thirds of Democrats see impeachment as extremely important.

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.

All the other issues like health care, immigration, and the economy produce a crowded field of Democrats saying roughly the same thing. Impeachment is a differentiation point — a wedge issue.

I mentioned earlier that two lanes were available, impeachment being one. The other is simple: celebrity. In a crowded field of people with little name recognition, an outsized celebrity influence can wreak havoc on the nomination process.

Trump provided this in 2012 and 2016. Democrats have access to far more celebrity influence than the Republican Party, and with politics swinging more toward a cult of personality at the moment, that leaves both parties open to celebrity influence.

Everyone watching the Democratic Party right now thinks it’ll be someone like Joe Biden, Kamala Harris, or Cory Booker who eventually earns their nomination. But if history has taught us anything, the early leaders are usually just the first losers. And impeachment could just be the wedge issue that splits the Dems’ playing field.

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