Is it Biden, the candidate who has made Trump’s unfitness for office the centerpiece of his campaign, one that sees removing him as the only important policy proposal?
Or is it Warren, who has tried to move Trump to the periphery of the 2020 race and emphasize that just getting rid of him isn’t enough because, she argues, the next president has to have a series of detailed revolutionary plans that will upend a rigged economic system and act as a vaccine against the rise of the next Trump?
These two competing views have until now been the main faultline of the primary. On immigration, for instance, Biden argues that replacing Trump with a Democrat is enough to reverse his immigration policies. Warren counters that the 1929 immigration law that has allowed Trump to increase prosecutions against border-crossers and separate the children of migrants from their parents needs to be scrapped entirely.
Now that the Democratic Party has decided to organize itself around the idea that Trump represents such an existential threat that he should be removed immediately from office, Democrats are still not sure just who a move to impeach the president helps — and who it hurts.
Interviews with people in several campaigns reveal a fraught debate over whether impeachment benefits Biden or Warren or has some other unintended consequences nobody foresees.
When I asked Steve Israel, a retired Democratic congressman from Long Island and former chairman of the DCCC, Cui bono? he made the case for Biden. “It’s reflected in the strong pragmatism coursing through the Democratic electorate,” he said. “In every poll I’ve seen, Democrats seem more concerned with a nominee who will defeat Trump versus a nominee who shares their ideology. The most motivating factor is winning.”
A current Democratic member of Congress disagreed. “You don’t see this as a suicide bomb?” he responded when I suggested impeachment plays into Biden’s message. “Takes out Biden, but probably mortally wounds [Trump]? Warren is a movement. Hard to see those supporters breaking.”
The most immediate impact of impeachment is that it prevents the Democratic presidential campaigns from discussing anything else. On Tuesday, when news broke that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi was forcefully backing an impeachment investigation, Bernie Sanders was in eastern Iowa delivering remarks about healthcare and immigration. He has been trying to arrest his steady decline in the polls by releasing a series of new plans that are to the left of Warren, in an effort to woo the many Democrats who have fled from Sanders to Warren, but it was nearly impossible for him to keep the press focussed on him rather than the dramatic news from Washington.
The near-term impact of impeachment blocking out any other campaign news may be to cement the race where it is: a Biden-Warren fight, with the rest of the candidates struggling more than ever to get noticed. “It makes it harder for the people below the top two to three candidates,” said a top adviser to a single-digit candidate. “Welcome to the lower tier, friends.”
“I think this race goes in one of two ways,” said an adviser to Kamala Harris. “Either Iowa will break late as history shows and local politics will matter. Or social media, etc. will play a large role and national politics (impeachment) rules the day. The latter bodes well for Biden and Warren.”
But it’s not just that the one-percent candidates will now struggle more than ever. The fulcrum of American politics has shifted from Iowa and New Hampshire back to Washington. Democrats have radically changed course when it comes to the preferred constitutional means to get rid of Trump: from an electoral remedy centered on their 2020 candidates and the primary process to a congressional remedy led by Washington insiders like Pelosi and Jerry Nadler, the chairman of the Judiciary Committee.
If impeachment fails, the focus will return to the voters themselves, but until then the Democratic presidential candidates lining up in support of impeachment are essentially outsourcing to Congress the very job they were seeking—getting rid of Trump.
This may reset the primary campaign in unexpected ways. It has become a cliche among activists on the left to point out that political actors and the press need to constantly be on guard against normalizing Trump’s behavior. But one of the main arenas where normalization of Trump has taken root is the primaries. Democrats running for president have largely internalized the conventional wisdom that they must appeal to voters on pocketbook issues, not byzantine Washington scandals or abstract democratic principles. They are not in a constant state of alarm over Trump. Nor has the party worked to refashion their primary process, which by design is divisive and pits candidates against each other, to address the common challenge of Trump.
This is not unusual. The oppositions in other democratic countries that have faced the rise of populists with authoritarian instincts and norm-busting behaviors often struggle in the face anti-democratic leaders elected through democratic means.
“We are all living in this world where the president is crazy and we have this circus-like environment and nobody knows how to respond,” said Steven Livitsky, the co-author, with Daniel Ziblatt, of How Democracies Die, the leading study of how modern democracies can be slowly eroded by Trump-like leaders. “We are all accustomed to taking American democracy for granted and assume our institutions work. The prudent thing to do is to go on with life as usual. Whether you’re a headline writer or an editorialist or a primary candidate.”
His book is replete with lessons learned from opposition parties in other countries that have recently grappled with how to defeat someone like Trump. The general prescription is that the opposition needs to be both united and open to forming a broader coalition with opponents who are similarly concerned about an elected leader subverting democratic institutions like the courts, the intelligence services and the press.
“Sometimes I wake up and think, ‘Jesus Christ, this is an emergency situation, the Democrats should cancel their primaries, form a united front, come up with a single message, find a way to get behind one candidate and not spend a year going after each other,’” Livitsky said. “In normal times it may be a fine way to choose a leader, but right now it’s risky.” In other words, in the face of Trump, a smoke-filled backroom could be preferable to an ugly primary that damages the eventual nominee.
There is clearly little prospect for such a radical approach, partly because the Democratic Party is too decentralized and lacks a respected establishment that could enforce any such plan, just as the Republican Party was powerless to prevent Trump’s take over in 2015 and 2016.
But a crucial question for Democrats is whether by switching their emphasis from finding the best candidate to defeat Trump to using the machinery of Congress to remove him, they risk the failure of both strategies.
Out on the 2020 campaign trail, Trump is counting on the Ukraine morass to boomerang against Biden the same way stories about Clinton’s emails damaged her. And back in Washington, he’s betting that Mitch McConnell and Republicans’ fear of their own pro-Trump electorates will keep him safe in the Senate.
Some leading Democratic candidates have already been baited into using the Trump attacks to subtly go after Biden. Harris hedged when asked if Hunter Biden’s work in Ukraine would be a problem for Democrats, saying she would “leave that to the voters to decide.” (Noting the wishy-washy answer, the never Trump publication The Bulwark declared, “Kamala Harris Lets Trump Do Her Dirty Work.”) On Wednesday night Warren became flustered when asked if her anti-corruption policies would prevent her vice president’s children from doing the kind of consulting work that Hunter did while his dad was in office. “No,” she said, according to CBS News, before retreating. “I don’t know. I mean I’d have to go back and look at the details.”
This is of course a potential nightmare scenario for Democrats: that the impeachment effort against Trump over Ukraine damages one of their leading candidates more than Trump himself. (Several sources on 2020 campaigns refused to allow me to use any comments about the politics of Ukraine either on the record or anonymously because they believed it played into Trump’s hands.)
Livitsky had some advice about how Democrats might prevent this. “Hunter Biden could end up being the 2020 version of Hillary’s emails,” he said. “In the case of these baseless allegations it is essential that all the major Democratic candidates line up and defend Biden against those charges.”
He added, “But if he’s the frontrunner and you are struggling to catch up, what incentive do you have to do that? So when asked about Biden maybe you hedge a bit. And I find that terrifying!”