Democratic leaders' impeachment tightrope

 Democratic leaders' impeachment tightrope
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Democratic leaders are desperate to avoid impeachment, because it will help Trump and hurt Democrats. Make no mistake: All Democrats want to remove this President from office — the divide between congressional leaders and members exists over how to do the removing. 

Members are increasingly enamored with the shortest distance between two points — from “in” to “out” — being a straight line. Leaders are increasingly aware that the shortest way to two terms — and potentially two congressional minorities — is impeachment. 

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Democrats have wanted Trump out of office even before he took office. Over two years in office have not changed things. Their reasons may change, but not their solution: Impeachment. 

Well into their first year controlling the House, Democrats have the means at their disposal to start the process. Increasingly, their leaders find it difficult to explain to their members and base why they are not doing so. 

The reason is simple: fear. They know impeachment will be counterproductive: Making an unpopular president more popular by pursuing an even more unpopular strategy.  

To understand, look at the latest NBC/WSJ presidential approval poll. Trump held a 46 percent approval rating — matching his 2016 popular vote percentage. Despite Democrats’ incessant pursuit and media’s coverage, Trump is where he was when he won — and he is probably higher, because the poll did not sample “likely voters,” with whom Trump scores higher. This is Democrats’ first fear. 

On the poll’s question whether Congress should “begin impeachment hearings now,” only 17 percent agreed, while 48 percent disagreed. That 3-to-1 disapproval is Democrats’ second fear. 

Democrats’ third fear comes from their past: Bill ClintonWilliam (Bill) Jefferson ClintonTrump sues to block NY prosecutors' subpoena for his tax returns Most voters say there is too much turnover in Trump administration RNC spokeswoman on 2020 GOP primary cancellations: 'This is not abnormal' MORE’s impeachment. The Senate did not get even a majority vote against Clinton — despite Republicans holding 55 seats. Clinton was acquitted on all charges. The verdict in Americans’ minds was Clinton won; Republicans lost. Democrats cannot afford to give Trump a further boost heading into reelection.

Nor can they afford to hurt themselves before November 2020. They have real reason to believe they would, because impeachment would play out thusly: The Democratic House passes impeachment charges and the Republican Senate acquits — failing to get a majority, let alone the two-thirds needed for conviction. The House action would prove wasted, though beneficial to Trump with the public, while both could prove costly to Democrats. 

Thirty-one House Democrats hold districts Trump won in 2016. A House impeachment vote would be an excruciating predicament: Vote against their constituents or vote against their base. Voting for impeachment opens them to a general election challenge; voting against impeachment opens them to a primary challenge.  

In 2016, Trump won 30 states; nine Democratic senators reside in those. Eight more reside in five states Trump lost by approximately 5 percent or less of the vote. Unlike their 31 House counterparts, not all run next year; but like their counterparts, this would still be an ugly vote — and taken for nothing, with conviction impossible. An impeachment vote will be “the vote” for a long time. 

Although these numbers may seem small, they are significant. The 31 House Democrats account for the party’s majority. The 17 senators are over one-third of Senate Democrats’ total. In both cases, these are seats to be safe-guarded — not risked.

Bad as these numbers are, they come from Trump 2016. The process of impeachment, combined could expand Democrats’ potential damage further. 

Pursuit of unpopular impeachment could raise Trump’s support with voters viewing him victimized by a politicized process. Simultaneously, Democrats’ popularity declines. The gap helps Trump and Republicans, and expands potentially threatened Democrats. 

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Democratic leaders with a relatively thin House majority know passing articles of impeachment will require overwhelming Democratic support. 

With just 47 Senate seats, Democrats would need to hold all — including those from states Trump won, or nearly won — and pick up 20 Republicans. In 1999, Republicans with 55 seats failed to get a simple majority to convict the other party’s president; 20 years later, Democrats would try to do the same thing with eight fewer seats. 

In a best case, Democrats will endanger many of their members with no chance of removing Trump. In a worst case, they will endanger even more members with a very real chance of strengthening Trump.  

Democratic leaders’ fear is justified. The straight line many of their members see impeachment to be, is in reality a tightrope running from improbable to impossible.

J.T. Young served under President George W. Bush as the director of communications in the Office of Management and Budget and as deputy assistant secretary in legislative affairs for tax and budget at the Treasury Department. He served as a congressional staffer from 1987-20