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As public impeachment hearings begin in the House intelligence committee this week, what exactly are Democrats hoping to achieve? We can think of their goals in terms of the audiences they likely have in mind.
Marginal Democrats and their constituents. The biggest disaster for Democrats would be if Republicans are united on an impeachment vote, and then, after a Senate trial, Democrats end up divided. For the most part, they’ve already done what they needed to do: Polls show that impeachment is almost as popular as President Donald Trump is unpopular, and there’s been no apparent backlash against Democrats or surge in support for Trump over the impeachment drive.
Representative Will Hurd. The Texas Republican and sometime Trump opponent, who is retiring after this term, is on the intelligence committee. He opposed formalizing the impeachment inquiry, as did every other House Republican. But he’s asked serious questions in previous hearings on Trump scandals, is one of a handful of Republicans most likely to vote for impeachment and may well carry some clout with other Trump skeptics. Winning his votes, and those of similarly situated Republicans, won’t get anywhere close to what’s needed to remove Trump, but it would probably produce a Senate majority for conviction. That’s important because it would force a serious trial; it’s also likely to harm Trump in terms of public opinion more than a majority vote to acquit would.
The next tier of Republicans. Removal is only possible if the bulk of the Republican Party turns on Trump. That would have to include a lot of people — both voters and party actors — who have chosen to support Trump despite having serious reservations about him. We can’t really know how many of those exist. Although stories often circulate about members of Congress who support Trump in public but brutally criticize him off the record, it’s always hard to tell how seriously to take such things.
The neutral media. By “neutral” I mean the major networks and newspapers that generally don’t act as messengers for either party. Democrats want to keep them focused on what Trump did and why it was so inappropriate that he should be removed. Republicans don’t appear to be rebutting those claims as much as complaining about procedure and attempting to put Democrats, especially former Vice President Joe Biden, on trial. Most voters won’t tune in to the hearings, but many will absorb something from the news coverage. That includes how the media signals which stories are important — so that even if people simply change the channel, the decision by television networks to break into regular programming with live coverage sends a powerful message.
Partisan Democrats. Party loyalists don’t need to be told that Trump needs to go. But they do need talking points to repeat, and preferably ones that make sense. They’ll also want fireworks, and would likely be skeptical of a narrow impeachment focused only on Trump’s dealings with Ukraine and not on obstruction of justice, emoluments and other matters. House Democrats don’t need to convince this audience, but they do need them to be fired up for next year’s election — they’re the ones who will put in the hours in phone banks, give money and bring their friends out to vote.
If the goal for Democrats is to actually impeach and remove the president, they can focus mainly on the first four groups, which all call for the same approach: a just-the-facts focus and a more-in-sorrow-than-in-anger attitude. If they think that removal is an impossible goal because Republicans will vote against it no matter what evidence emerges, and that partisan polarization is so deep it can’t be bridged, then simply firing up the most partisan Democrats would probably make sense.
So pay attention to the demeanor and style in which committee chair Adam Schiff and other Democrats conduct these hearings. You’ll learn pretty quickly whether they think there’s a real chance of removing Trump — or if they think of the process mainly as a part of the 2020 campaign.
1. Greg Koger at Mischiefs of Faction speculates about what the 2020 election will look like if Trump stays at his current level of unpopularity. Plausible! And perhaps an underrated possibility. But there’s still plenty of time for Trump to recover. Over the weekend, I saw someone assert that it was certain Trump will lose the popular vote by millions and his only hope is the Electoral College, but in fact it’s way too early to be certain of anything like that.
2. Dave Hopkins continues his must-read “this week in impeachment” feature.
3. Anna Grzymala-Busse and Pauline Jones at the Monkey Cage on democratic erosion in former Soviet bloc nations.
4. My Bloomberg Opinion colleague Noah Smith on controlling health-care costs.
5. And Margaret Sullivan has some suggestions for the media on how to cover the impeachment hearings, suggestions that I think I violated above. That said: If all the coverage this week focused on what the Democrats and Republicans on the committee are up to rather than on the story being detailed about the president, I agree that’d be a mistake.
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