The impeachment war is not just about impeachment. It’s also about the 2020 election.
President Trump’s strategy, if one can call it that, is thus not aimed primarily at avoiding impeachment in the House, which now seems inevitable, or even removal from office by the Senate, still a long shot. It is designed to let him survive this process with a chance of winning re-election.
This makes life complicated for Democrats organizing the inquiry and for those seeking their party’s presidential nomination.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Rep. Adam Schiff, D-California, and the rest of their caucus confront a strategic imbalance. They can’t forget the long game, but they must stay focused on facts, witnesses and evidence. The president and his Republican defenders in Congress can play political games to their heart’s content. Democrats can’t afford to appear to be anything but judicious, careful and deliberate, lest they play into Trump’s hands by looking, well, “political.”
And while the dance in Washington continues, the party’s nomination race is entering the stage that will accentuate divisions. Trump will exploit every crack in Democratic solidarity.
Attacks on Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren will escalate, because current trends are in her favor. All her rivals have an interest in reversing them.
Former Vice President Joe Biden will be fighting on two fronts as he addresses perceptions that his candidacy is fading. He must stop Warren’s momentum and prevent another center-left candidate — South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg especially, but also, perhaps, Sens. Amy Klobuchar or Kamala Harris — from biting into the support he has maintained.
And public speculation by Democratic strategists that the party needs to find a brand-new candidate weakens everyone now running, which is also to Trump’s advantage.
The situation Democrats face is therefore more treacherous than they may want to believe, given that a flailing Trump seems to be losing the messaging war on impeachment rather badly. Yes, the public seems ready to throw Trump out of office. But will Democrats make that easy or hard?
A report released last week by the Center for American Progress sheds important light on the party’s choices. One of its key findings will cheer Trump’s foes: If every demographic group votes as it did in 2016, Trump will lose the popular vote by an even greater margin than he did last time, and fall short in the three states that put him over the top: Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin.
Why? Because, write Ruy Teixeira and John Halpin, the study’s authors, “the nonwhite share of the eligible electorate will increase by 2 percentage points, almost entirely from increases in the shares of Hispanics, Asians, and voters of other races. That will be balanced by a commensurate decrease in the share of white noncollege eligible voters.”
But Democrats should not think that victory is already in the bank. The Electoral College decides who is president and Teixeira and Halpin note that these demographic shifts alone would produce only very narrow margins in the three key states. If Democrats fail to convert some of Trump’s voters or increase turnout among the faithful, the party’s candidate would still be at risk.
“Whoever the Democratic nominee is,” Teixeira said in an interview, “he or she must do two things above all: Reach out to the white working class and increase black turnout.”
This is exactly why many Democrats once saw Biden as their savior, since he combines a white working-class appeal with a strong draw on the loyalty of African Americans. Biden’s problem is that many Democrats have begun to wonder if the candidate they are seeing on the trail is the same person they imagined when he first announced his bid.
Biden needs to restore their confidence even as his rivals try to persuade primary voters that they are more likely to achieve Teixeira’s twin goals than the former vice president.
As for Trump, Teixeira sees his most promising path to re-election as “increasing his share of the white working-class vote and also increasing turnout in this group,” while holding down his losses among the white college-educated.
So if Trump’s approach to impeachment seems undisciplined, its main purpose is to incite rage, energy and thus turnout among those who put him in the White House in the first place: Republican base voters plus white working-class swing voters. “Is his strategy working?” Teixeira asked. “Probably not. But there may be method in his madness.”
Which is why Trump’s madness will continue. Democrats cannot afford to assume that this alone will doom him.
Follow E.J. Dionne on Twitter @EJDionne.