Centrist Democrats fret over impeachment gamble

Aaron Schwartz - Greg Nash

Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s (D-Calif.) remarkable move to formalize an impeachment inquiry into President Trump escalates the tensions between the parties — and marks a huge gamble by House Democrats heading into the high-stakes 2020 elections.

While the strategy has quickly invigorated the party’s liberal base, it’s also empowered GOP attacks that Democrats are attempting to nullify the results of the 2016 presidential election through an impeachment process that remains underwater in national opinion polls.

Some moderate Democrats on Capitol Hill are sounding a warning that, by launching head-first into impeachment, party leaders risk alienating voters in the very districts they most need to keep in order to retain the House next year — the same concern Pelosi harbored for months in initially resisting that divisive step.{mosads}

“This is going to suck up the oxygen in the room,” said freshman Rep. Jefferson Van Drew (D-N.J.), who pointed to Watergate and the impeachment of Bill Clinton as historic examples of how the process can quickly devour the nation’s attention — at the expense of legislative priorities.

“It is the focus of the media; it is the focus of the legislature; it is the focus of just about everybody in Washington,” added Van Drew, who represents a district Trump won by 4.6 points in 2016. “So I am concerned that it will, in some way, take us away from the real business at hand, which are pocketbook issues for the people of our districts.

“You really are opening Pandora’s Box.”

Many Democrats — including top leaders — are dismissing the notion that the party’s embrace of impeachment will undermine their legislative efforts or lead to political blowback at the polls next year. They say Trump’s admission that he pressed a foreign leader to investigate a domestic political adversary is damning enough — and clear-cut enough for voters to digest — to merit the escalation in the party’s oversight strategy.

“The American people have seen this play out in plain view, in real time. It’s not looking back at conduct and trying to figure out what happened,” said Rep. David Cicilline (R.I.), head of the Democrats’ messaging arm. “This is the president of the United States telling the American people that he reached out to a foreign leader in an effort to gin up a fake story against one of his political opponents — in real time.”

Yet Trump and Republican political operatives have pounced this week, accusing Democrats of launching a witch hunt against the president to score political points ahead of the elections. The Republicans’ campaign arm has been hard at work blasting attack ads against any vulnerable Democrat who has backed Pelosi’s impeachment strategy.{mossecondads}

The Republicans have some history to draw upon: After impeaching Clinton in 1998 — when public support was not behind them — Republicans were clobbered in the midterm cycle. They’re hoping to turn the tides on Democrats this time around.

“Make no mistake about it: Backing impeachment will cost the Democrats their majority in 2020,” said Rep. Tom Emmer (Minn.), head of the National Republican Congressional Committee.

A Quinnipiac University poll released Wednesday found that just 37 percent of voters support Trump’s impeachment, versus 57 percent who oppose the move. The partisan divide, however, is stark: 73 percent of Democrats back the controversial move, while just 4 percent of Republicans felt the same.

Some Democrats on the receiving end of the GOP attacks concede impeachment is unpopular with constituents back home. But they said Trump’s actions with Ukraine are so egregious and unconstitutional, they cannot be ignored.

“A lot of people in my district don’t love the idea of impeachment. I’ve certainly been hearing from them,” said freshman Rep. Elissa Slotkin (D-Mich.), a former CIA analyst and Defense Department official who ousted GOP Rep. Mike Bishop last fall.

“Rep. Elissa Slotkin may have risked political career with call for Trump impeachment,” read a Wednesday column by the opinion page editor for the Detroit Free Press that praised her “political courage.”

Earlier this week, Slotkin joined six other vulnerable freshman lawmakers in endorsing an impeachment inquiry after reports that Trump had repeatedly pressured the Ukrainian president to investigate his chief political rival, former Vice President Joe Biden.

“For me, it’s about that top-line request. We can’t make it normal for the president of the United States of any party to go to a foreign leader — the Chinese, the North Koreans, let’s go to the Iranians, anybody — and ask for dirt in our political process. That should not be OK,” Slotkin said. “And that’s my deep concern about that, about setting a normal example, a precedent on that is why, despite the fact that it is controversial in my district, I came out” in favor of impeachment.

Other vulnerable Democrats are simply trying to steer clear of the impeachment issue that’s swept over Capitol Hill this week. Rep. Tom O’Halleran (D-Ariz.), one of roughly 30 Democrats who doesn’t back an impeachment inquiry, sidestepped questions about whether his party’s aggressive impeachment push could harm his reelection chances in 2020.

“I’m more worried about making sure that we work in parallel track on addressing the needs of our country, the public policy that’s needed to be to make sure families are made whole,” O’Halleran told The Hill.

“If all you’re going to do is worry about elections … that’s up to my constituents. I have to do public policy.”

Almost 190 House Democrats are now on record supporting impeachment in some form, according to a tally being kept by The Hill. The holdouts, including O’Halleran and Van Drew, are a mix of veteran Blue Dogs — like Reps. Collin Peterson (Minn.) and Kurt Schrader (Ore.) — and freshman moderates facing tough reelections, including Reps. Jared Golden (Maine) and Kendra Horn (Okla.).

Another freshman, Rep. Donna Shalala (D-Fla.), said the Ukraine issue “really put it over” for lawmakers like her who just flipped GOP seats. And she added that she’s personally not concerned at all about political blowback for backing impeachment. 

“No, no. I’ve listened to my constituents. I’ve been careful in arguing that we have to start the process. No one’s above the law. I’ve made my argument in my community. And I’ve had 15 town meetings and I’m going to have a slew of others,” said Shalala, a former Clinton Cabinet secretary who lived through her boss’s impeachment hearings during the late 1990s.

“People are very concerned about the president breaking the law. … Democrats in particular are concerned, but I think everybody’s concerned.”

Tags Bill Clinton Collin Peterson David Cicilline Donald Trump Donna Shalala Elissa Slotkin Impeachment Joe Biden Kendra Horn Kurt Schrader Nancy Pelosi Tom Emmer
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