To impeach or not? Why Democrats have been keeping things fuzzy.

Why We Wrote This

To many Democrats, impeachment looks like the moral high road. But the public at large is divided on this sensitive issue. That goes a long way toward explaining leaders’ mixed signals.

J. Scott Applewhite/AP
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California meets with reporters in Washington on Sept. 12, 2019, just after the House Judiciary Committee approved guidelines for impeachment hearings. She said "we will follow the facts ... and make our decision when we’re ready."

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A new impeachment divide is emerging: Not only are Democrats deeply split over whether President Donald Trump ought to be impeached, they can’t agree on whether they have, in fact, already begun the process.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi remains a voice of restraint. “If we have to go there, we’ll have to go there,” she said last Thursday, even as the House Judiciary Committee held what some are calling an “impeachment hearing” this week.

To many in the party’s base, impeachment is simply the right thing to do for a Congress that is already one of the most distrusted institutions in American society. But politically, Democrats are in a bind. While 70% of Democrats want Congress to start proceedings, most voters – more than 60% – either aren’t sold or don’t have an opinion, according to one recent poll. And it would be easier for Republicans to attack Democrats on impeachment than on being indecisive.

“Confusion is not memorable. Impeachment is,” says Capri Cafaro, a former Democratic Ohio state senator now at American University.

Among Democrats in Congress, a new impeachment divide is emerging: Not only do they remain deeply split over whether President Donald Trump ought to be impeached, they can’t agree on whether they have, in fact, already begun the process.

As the various investigations, hearings, and court battles heat up,  Democratic leaders seem unable to decide whether it’s all still a prelude – or if an “impeachment investigation,” as House Judiciary Committee chair Jerry Nadler of New York now terms it, is actually underway. 

“If we have to go there, we’ll have to go there,” Speaker Nancy Pelosi said in her weekly press briefing last Thursday. “But we can’t go there unless we have the facts, and we will follow the facts ... and make our decision when we’re ready.”

A day later, Congressman Nadler told MSNBC’s Lawrence O’Donnell that his committee was “involved in an investigation to determine whether to recommend articles of impeachment to the House.”

“I think there’s definitely some confusion because people are using different language,” David Cicilline of Rhode Island, another Democrat on the Judiciary Committee, told Newsweek this week. 

To critics, the disarray is making Democrats appear indecisive or even incompetent. Some say it could undermine them in federal court, where they’ve got several cases against Mr. Trump and the Justice Department.

Others suggest the mixed messaging is just the party’s best way of navigating what increasingly appears to be a no-win political situation. It keeps the progressive base, the wing of the party most clamoring for impeachment, at bay without alienating swing voters who are unenthusiastic about the prospect. And it lets the party signal that they are concerned about the president’s actions without leaving them too vulnerable to the kind of backlash actual impeachment proceedings might bring. 

“Confusion is not memorable. Impeachment is,” says Capri Cafaro, a former Democratic Ohio state senator who’s now an executive in residence at American University. “[They’re] making the calculus that it’s better to take the risk of looking, in the short term, disorganized and not on the same page, in order to try to walk this fine line.” 

It’s hardly a grand strategy, and leadership can’t keep it going forever. But they don’t have to, Ms. Cafaro says. They just need to keep the balancing act going until the 2020 elections effectively take the issue off the table for them. 

‘Apprehensive’ no matter what

Indeed, Democrats’ bind in many ways reflects how the politics of impeachment are inextricably linked to the 2020 campaign. If they move now to impeach the president, and wind up losing the election, they will almost certainly be blamed. If they don’t move toward impeachment, and lose the election, they will likely be blamed as well. On the other hand, if they win the election, then impeachment might be seen as unnecessary, anyway.

“It’s not something where there’s a consensus about how this turns out, and that tends to favor the status quo,” says Alex Theodoridis, a political science professor at the University of California, Merced, and former chief of staff at the University of Virginia Center for Politics. “The assumptions that politicians have made before have been shown to be incorrect, at least as it pertains to Trump. That makes Democrats even more apprehensive about whatever choices they make.”

Part of the problem is that Democrats are probing a wide range of potentially impeachable offenses, including allegations of obstruction of justice and financial self-dealing. And there’s no consensus yet on what, if anything, they need to focus on if they were to launch impeachment proceedings against the president.

Then there’s the threat of political fallout. While 70% of Democrats want Congress to start proceedings, most voters – more than 60% – either aren’t sold or don’t have an opinion, according to a recent Politico/Morning Consult poll.

It’s likely party leaders are considering how many voters they might lose in that 60% bloc – and how much it might energize Mr. Trump’s supporters – if they formally announce impeachment proceedings, Professor Theodoridis says. Certainly, it would be easier for Republicans to attack Democrats on impeachment than on being indecisive.

But there’s also a case to be made against a hard “no” to impeachment. The party’s progressive wing is small but vocal, and could be a formidable force in the primaries. Already at least five prominent committee chairs – including Congressman Nadler – are facing serious primary challenges in 2020, The Daily Beast reported this week. 

The view from the base

If Mr. Trump wins in 2020 after Democrats choose not to pursue impeachment, they could face serious consequences from their base for a long time. “Democrats will not be able to say they gave their best effort against Trump when they didn’t use the one tool they really have,” says Erin O’Brien, chair of the political science department at the University of Massachusetts, Boston.

To many in the party’s base, politics are beside the point: impeachment is simply the right thing to do. Congress already holds the dubious honor of being one of the most distrusted institutions in American society. Some 80% of Americans think members of Congress act unethically all or some of the time, according to a new Pew Research Center survey. If Democrats don’t pursue impeachment, they may be seen as ceding one of Congress’ main jobs – oversight – in favor of a political agenda.

“These are equal branches and, at best, we can see that there are questionable acts that should be investigated,” Professor O’Brien says. Voters want to see “some honor in Washington,” she adds. “To see politicians willing to do something, even if it might hurt their election concerns.”

Of course, Republicans are just as likely to see it as a co-opting of the Constitution for partisan purposes – especially if Democrats fail to get any meaningful GOP support for impeachment proceedings.

So far, this stew of potential outcomes has led to some surface movement among Democrats. But nothing suggests a meaningful shift from the current situation.

One first step

The Judiciary Committee’s vote last Thursday approving the procedures for an impeachment probe was just that – a vote on the rules that would guide impeachment proceedings. It didn’t recommend a full House vote on the matter, which historically has been how Congress begins an official impeachment inquiry. The move added some formality to the investigation, but didn’t really change the political dynamics behind it. 

The committee’s first big “impeachment hearing,” held Tuesday and featuring testimony by former Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandowksi, ended in much the same way, despite the skilled questioning by attorney and Democratic consultant Barry Berke. 

“It’s more extensive pageantry,” says Ms. Cafaro.

Some say this state of affairs is the result of the party’s inaction after the release of former special counsel Robert Mueller’s report. “Democrats were handed a pretty rich hand and they did nothing with it,” Professor O’Brien says. Now, with 2020 on the horizon, they’re forced to tread water – and getting politically outplayed. “I don’t think they’re playing a good long game.” 

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