The biggest challenge facing House Democrats over the next two weeks is whether to include articles of impeachment related to obstruction of justice and other issues like emoluments, or to focus very narrowly on bribery and extortion of Ukraine. Depressingly, it seems that a number of House Democrats in so-called “frontline” purple districts are set firmly against it, insisting on a limited scope:
On Friday, several freshmen Democrats bluntly warned their leadership not to include evidence from the Mueller report in the articles of impeachment. Their argument: They only got behind an impeachment inquiry because it was narrowly focused on Ukraine — and didn’t believe the evidence that Trump sought to derail an investigation into his presidency and the 2016 campaign were sufficient grounds for impeachment.
“No,” Brinidisi said flatly when asked if he’d be inclined to support an article that includes Mueller evidence. “I’m going to see what the articles are that are put on the floor. … It’s my job to decide whether that evidence fits those articles of impeachment.”
California Rep. Gil Cisneros said Democrats “need to stay focused on Ukraine,” citing how he and a group of more moderate members endorsed an impeachment inquiry after Trump’s actions with Ukraine prompted national security concerns. “It was about Ukraine, and the President putting our national security at risk. That’s what I’m ready to vote on.”
There is frankly no good reason for this. It is entirely likely that Democrats in these districts are getting polling showing that voters are more concerned about “pocketbook issues” than impeachment, and are sensitive to talking points that they are focused only on impeachment.
It’s a ridiculous thing to worry about, given that 1) House Democrats have passed a large number of bills that directly benefit ordinary Americans; 2) McConnell’s Senate refuses to act on any of these bills and frontline Democrats can point that out; 3) politicians are elected to actually do things, not just blow with the polling winds–certainly Republicans have no trouble withstanding holding positions their constituents disagree with; and 4) their Republican opponents will accuse them of being do-nothing Trump haters no matter what they do. But they worry nonetheless.
It’s also silly because it doesn’t take any more time to impeach Trump for extorting Ukraine on Russia’s behalf, than to impeach him for extorting Ukraine and obstructing justice on Russia’s behalf. The articles of impeachment write themselves, no further witnesses are necessary, and the number of Republicans crossing over will remain exactly the same.
What’s likely going on here is that these Democrats are getting polling in their districts showing that some marginal slice of their district is somewhat more favorably disposed to a narrow impeachment than an expanded one, and it’s making them all nervous.
But this is a terrible use of polling data. It may well be true that poll respondents in these districts answer thus. But the reality of partisan alignment is that there are essentially no voters who would choose to re-elect a freshman Democrat in a purple district if they vote for a limited impeachment, but would choose their Republican opponent if they vote for an expanded one. Those voters functionally do not exist. They may express certain preferences in polling for a variety of reasons, but it’s not going to be how they determine their votes. No one in the real world is saying “well, yes, Trump was guilty of extorting Ukraine and deserved an impeachment vote from my Representative X, but impeaching him for also firing James Comey is just a bridge too far, so I’m voting instead for the MAGA tax-cuts-for-the-rich guy who thinks Giuliani is a hero.”
Voters who are inclined to punish a representative for impeaching Trump will do so. Voters who are inclined not to, won’t. Voters who are somewhat conflict averse, or don’t know the details of the Mueller report and Trump’s various self-enrichment schemes, are in a position to learn about them and change their minds.
But under no circumstances should politicians be using marginally distinct polling data on issues like this to drive their decision-making process when democracy itself hangs in the balance, and their own electoral futures will be so minimally impacted by it.
David Atkins is a writer, activist and research professional living in Santa Barbara. He is a contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal and president of The Pollux Group, a qualitative research firm.