In the Washington Post, Greg Sargent has laid out some interesting parameters in the argument over whether House Democrats should focus impeachment inquiries solely on the Ukraine affair, or the broader range of Trump’s criminality. The gravity of this week’s revelations notwithstanding, the president has still committed a host of other impeachable offenses, from emoluments to campaign finance violations—via paying off an adult actress—to obstruction and more.
There are myriad complications involved, but it ultimately comes down to a political question (well, really two): are Democrats in the so-called “majority maker” districts actually at risk by standing up for impeachment? And is there a chance that a significant number of Senate Republicans would vote to convict Trump?
At the moment, Nancy Pelosi and the House Democratic leadership seem to be indicating they want a narrowly targeted inquiry that will wrap up quickly before next year. This is presumably because leadership sees impeachment as a net negative in swing districts, and would prefer to focus on “bread-and-butter” kitchen-table issues. But as an outside observer, it’s not clear this is the wisest approach for Democrats.
First, much of the public—including in purple districts—takes cues from trusted leaders. Support for impeachment has risen dramatically in several new polls. Many would argue that this is because of the simplicity and outrageousness of Trump’s behavior regarding Biden and Ukraine. Others would also argue that House Democrats and other center-left aligned opinion leaders starting to support impeachment is a big driver: after all, why should base voters support a process that their leaders do not? If House Democrats broaden the impeachment inquiry to include other issues, there may well be an educational effect that turns support for impeachment into a net positive, even in purple districts and swing states.
Second, there is little likelihood that Democrats will be able to pivot from Trump’s criminality to kitchen table issues in an election year, whether impeachment inquiries are ongoing or not. Republicans will accuse House Democrats in tough districts of stonewalling and doing nothing whether impeachment proceeds or not. House Democrats will be able to go to their districts and point to their votes on a range of bills to help voters with their daily lives regardless. Trump will continue to suck up all the political oxygen throughout the election year, and the 2020 down-ballot races with be nationalized no matter what local candidates do.
Whether voters believe that Democrats will help their pocketbooks will depend much more on the Democratic nominee for president than anything else. That goes for whether there is an impeachment or not, and for whether an inquiry is completed by the end of November or the end of April.
Also, this whole conversation presumes there is some mass of voters willing to support Democratic House candidates if they don’t impeach Trump, but who will shift their votes to their Republican opposition if they do. There is no reason to believe that such voters exist in any significant numbers. There are many reasons to believe that Democratic excitement and base mobilization through an impeachment would likely outweigh any minor effects.
The third reason to pursue a multi-dimensional impeachment inquiry: the GOP Senate. Some argue that by narrowing the scope of the inquiry, it will be easier for a Republican Senator to take the fateful vote to convict the president. But there is little reason to believe that is actually true. If Susan Collins is willing to infuriate the Trump/Fox News base by actually voting to remove the president, it won’t matter a whit whether she voted to do so just over Ukraine, or over whether it was because of Ukraine, emoluments, Stormy Daniels, James Comey’s firing, and any other issues that may yet arise. If anything, the reverse might be true: the conservative infotainment machine may drum up enough of a fantasy counter-narrative to blunt the Ukraine issue specifically, but pressure would mount on GOP Senators if forced to consider the totality of Trump’s crimes.
Even if impeachment continues to poll underwater in the Democrats’ most vulnerable districts (and there no particular reason to believe it will, nor reason to believe that it would make much difference regardless), not every Democrat must vote for impeachment.
While it would obviously be helpful from a messaging standpoint if the entire caucus voted unanimously on impeachment, and for no stray Democrats to be giving cover to Republicans on Fox News, members of Congress do have minds of their own. The leadership frequently “releases” endangered members to vote against the majority of the caucus to guard against partisan attacks. If there are a handful of districts in which impeachment really does present a significant political liability outweighing the benefit of base mobilization, then a member in one of those districts can burnish their “independent” credentials by voting against Pelosi—with Pelosi’s tacit blessing. It happens all the time, and it can happen here as well.
Of course, these are just the political considerations. The moral case requires a full accounting for the president’s deeds. If Democrats fail to impeach over Trump’s emoluments, for instance, is there any reason to believe a future president with sprawling business interests would fear to take advantage?
Future generations will one day be studying the way our leaders react now. The political calculus should weigh heavily in favor of a more robust and longer process that encompasses the full range of Trump’s high crimes and misdemeanors. It’s what the conscience of our country demands.
[Note: this piece was written on Friday afternoon before stories broke of further misuse of classification systems and access restrictions to conceal other sensitive/troubling conversations with world leaders]