After the 2016 election, Donald Trump and Republicans gloated that the Democratic Party was in its worst shape since the 1920s. Democrats had not only lost the White House and both houses of Congress, but were decimated at the state level. They were in the midst of an existential crisis, stemming from Hillary Clinton blowing her race against the least popular presidential candidate in modern American history. Where had the Democrats gone so wrong?
The Democrats haven’t done much to address this question, failing to even release an autopsy report. And yet, they are poised for massive gains in the 2018, thanks to the fact that the president is an incompetent idiot who keeps doing self-destructive and possibly criminal things. His behavior in office has been shameful and scandalous, and his White House perpetually seems on the verge of collapse. Less than four months into his presidency, calls for impeachment have become deafening. And to be fair, these calls are eminently reasonable.
In this environment, running on impeachment—on pledging to take back Congress and prosecute Trump—will be tempting for Democrats in 2018. Midterm elections are always referendums on the president, so why not turn 2018 into the biggest referendum of all? Elect us, Democrats can say, and we’ll take the president down. But while the legal arguments for impeaching Trump are strong—and they will probably only get stronger—there are serious pitfalls to impeachment as an electoral approach. “Is that really the winning argument for picking up seats on Republican territory?” political scientist Sarah Binder of George Washington University asked me.
To take back the House, Democrats will have to win a number of Republican-leaning districts. Although the sample size is limited, early indications suggest that they have a good chance of picking up a substantial number of seats. Even if populist Montana Democrat Rob Quist were to lose his special election on Thursday by four points, that result would nevertheless suggest that more than 100 Republican seats will be vulnerable in 2018.
The i-word may fire up the party’s already frothing base, which is clamoring for action and taking to the streets and social media to demand that Trump be confronted as aggressively as possible. And after all, Nate Silver did suggest that Trump has an eye-popping 50 percent probability of not finishing his first term. But the task for Democrats is to persuade enough Republicans to switch sides, while keeping their base activated and involved. “I think it’s highly premature to begin talking about impeachment,” Bill Galston of the Brookings Institute told me. “The factual predicate has not been raised, and I think that it would be very, very difficult to defend that position beyond the most energized portion of the Democratic base.”
The most effective midterm campaign might be the more traditional one: characterize the election as a referendum on what has been accomplished during the president’s first two years. “If you want to try to flip seats and produce shifts in areas where you didn’t do so well in 2016, you wouldn’t look at 2016 and say, ‘The lesson here is to talk more about how bad Trump is,’” says Ruy Teixeira of the Center for American Progress (CAP). “Maybe the lesson is you need to talk more about what’s wrong with what Trump proposes to do or has done.”
So far, Democrats appear to be hewing to that line. Trump has arguably already admitted to obstructing justice by telling NBC’s Lester Holt that he fired former FBI Director James Comey because he wanted to undercut the FBI’s investigation into his campaign’s ties to Russia. Since then, there have been a number of troubling reports that Trump tried to interfere with the investigation in other ways. But Democrats have been cautious not to go too far out on a limb. “On the issue of impeachment, I am doing my homework,” Representative Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii said at a recent town hall.
The few Democrats who have called for Trump’s impeachment are, for the most part, back-benchers with little power. The party’s leadership has stayed quiet, neither fanning the flames nor attempting to quell their base. They have vociferously criticized Trump while stopping just short of impeachment. At last week’s CAP-sponsored Ideas Conference, only Congresswoman Maxine Waters of California explicitly called for Trump’s removal from office.
The question facing Democrats is similar to the dilemma faced by the Clinton campaign in 2016: Do you try to make an inspiring, big-picture policy argument, or do you focus your campaign on the fact that Trump is a nut? The Clinton campaign focused on the latter, a decision that certainly played a role in her loss. The difference is that Democrats now have a wealth of material to work from: Trump’s disastrous health care bill, as well as budget and tax proposals that would favor the interests of the extremely wealthy over everyone else.
Importantly, these policies are more unfavorable with the general public than impeachment is favorable. Asked about impeachment, Kyle Kondik of UVA’s Center for Politics told me, “I don’t know if this ranks as the most important issue for the public. If you make the election next year about impeaching Trump over his campaign’s connection to Russia it may be that the general public doesn’t care about that stuff as much as it does about the AHCA or whatever the state of the economy is.”
Because so many of these elections will be held in Republican-leaning districts, they may come down to a tactic the Clinton campaign largely abandoned during the 2016 election: persuasion. “If we’re thinking about the ground on which Democrats might be able to pick up—independent-leaning voters, no-party-attachment voters, weak-party-attachment voters—you gotta go after the big issues, which are typically the economy, jobs, possibly trade,” Binder said. “It’s just a different pitch. It’s not a pitch to a Democratic base, which might eat up impeachment.”
Indeed, it’s likely that running on impeachment will backfire with the people who voted for Trump. “It’s hard to get people to shift,” Galston told me. “If the campaign was simply to impeach Trump that would force a lot of voters who voted for him in 2016 to confess that they made a mistake. Getting people to confess they made a mistake is hard because that confession is painful.”
Teixeira said Democrats should learn lessons from the campaign to recall Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker in 2012. “Everybody got talked into how Scott Walker should be recalled, and that just polarized things to a point that actually wasn’t useful for the Democrats in the state,” he said. An impeachment message could also play into one of Trump’s most consistent themes: that Democrats are just mad because they lost an election. “The danger for Democrats is being seen as trying to nullify the presidential election,” Binder told me. “Just keep it an up-or-down referendum: Is Trump working for you or not?”
That doesn’t mean that impeachment should have no part in the Democrats’ strategy in 2018—in some districts it may very well work. It just shouldn’t be the focal point.
One of the reasons an impeachment campaign is tempting is because it papers over divisions within the Democratic Party. The biggest danger may be that Donald Trump’s terrible, unpopular, attention-sucking presidency will prevent the party from articulating a vision for governance in the post-Obama era. “Talk of impeachment is at most a convenient diversion from the main task facing the Democratic Party, which is to come up with themes and policies that can attract the support of a new American majority,” Galston said.
Trump’s presidency gives Democrats an opening to establish core policies on a number of key issues, like health care, tax reform, trade, and entitlements. The question is: Will they take it?