Democrats’ impeachment effort is a preview of their 2020 campaign: They will not enjoy either outcome. Currently, both are artificial constructs in which President Trump is reduced to an impotent target and Democrats are inflated by a false sense of security. But as impeachment and the 2020 campaign progress, Democrats’ advantage will quickly disappear.
Impeachment is short-hand for the illegitimacy Democrats have felt about Trump since he was elected. Name any Democratic accusation against the president and at its heart lies the charge of illegitimacy. That is why, for all their versions, Democrats have had one solution: Impeachment.
Democrats’ current impeachment proceeding also previews their intended 2020 campaign. They intend to channel everything back to their theme of the president’s illegitimacy. If Democrats had their way, this would be the contest’s single issue.
Impeachment in the House has been a one-sided affair. It has been only the Democrats’ story: Their timing, their rules, their witnesses and their procedure. It is Democrats’ best-case scenario, and they have Trump in his worst possible position.
The Democratic presidential contest has been the same. Again, it is only their story: Their process, their rallies, their debates and their candidates. And as their recent fifth debate showed, Trump is in his worst possible position — their political piñata in a competition for the harshest rhetoric.
In both the abridged and unabridged versions of Democrats’ one-sided story, they have President Trump in an artificially unfavorable position. Democrats’ problem in both is twofold: Each will end soon, and they have made so little of their opportunity.
With impeachment, each step will become harder. Already on their first House vote, merely a procedural one to initiate an official inquiry, two Democrats opposed it. The House’s next votes will be substantive ones on articles of impeachment, and leaders will have to thread the needle between too tough and too soft, too many and too few. It is likely that more Democrats will oppose some of the articles, and most will be vulnerable moderates.
Every lost Democratic vote will make the opposition to the proceedings seem more “bipartisan.” The greater the bipartisan opposition, the greater the doubts in the general public about Democrats’ removal effort, and the more it will look like the political coup attempt Trump claims it is.
Once any impeachment articles reach the Senate, the exercise gets still tougher. The House effort is to determine if the president should be tried; the Senate trial will determine whether he should be removed.
That’ll be a much more fraught vote. Democrats will need at least 20 Republicans to vote with them in order to remove the president. But nine Democrats hold seats Trump won in 2016, so Democrats will likely lose some, increasing their need for Republicans.
The Senate trial will be a real one – formal and even-handed – for the first time. Trump’s position will only improve; once the Senate acquits – likely on bipartisan, and possibly majority, votes – Trump’s position will improve more. And again, Democrats’ effort will look more like a coup attempt.
President Trump’s impeachment acquittal will effectively kick off the real 2020 campaign. In comparison to 2019’s Democratic-only debates, where they attack an absentee opponent unable to hit back, Democrats will have to begin attacking each other – hard – and Trump will begin hitting the handful of Democrats who have a real chance of winning — reaching a crescendo with Democrats’ self-bloodied nominee.
For Democrats, the question now is “Who?” But soon the questions will be: “How long? How damaged? And how broke?” Also, “How divided will the party be?” Their nominee will face a unified Republican Party led by an incumbent with a strong economy, significant accomplishments, a huge cash advantage, and one who will vigorously exploit Democrats’ self-inflicted wounds.
Just as the Senate impeachment trial will no longer be a one-sided affair, the presidential debates will become bipartisan.
For months, Democrats have enjoyed dual illusions with their impeachment effort and presidential campaign. In both cases, circumstances are right now as good as they will get for Democrats. In both cases, Democrats’ circumstances are not that good: Their impeachment effort is on its way to failure and their campaign is not on its way to closure. In both cases, circumstances look to deteriorate from here.
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 through 2000.