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Stop Overthinking Impeachment Politics

Democrats backed Trump's trade pact on the same day they introduced articles of impeachment. The optics don't matter.

Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty

At 9 a.m. on Tuesday morning, House Democrats formally unveiled two articles of impeachment that they would bring against President Donald Trump. The announcement brought the House one step closer to impeaching a president for only the third time in the nation’s history. “Our president holds the ultimate public trust,” Jerry Nadler, the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, told reporters. “When he betrays that trust and puts himself before country, he endangers the Constitution, he endangers our democracy, and he endangers our national security.”

One hour later, Speaker Nancy Pelosi made another announcement: She had struck a deal with the White House to support the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement—a revised version of Nafta, the North American trade pact with Canada and Mexico. “It is infinitely better than what was initially proposed by the administration,” Pelosi told reporters, referring to changes that Democrats had demanded. “It’s a victory for America’s workers.” Trump cheered the news on Twitter: “Looking like very good Democrat support for USMCA. That would be great for our Country!”

The strange timing struck some observers as bad optics and bad politics. “Nothing more perfectly embodies the Democratic party than announcing articles of impeachment and a huge deal with the President on his single biggest priority on the same day,” MSNBC host Chris Hayes observed. “House Dems were elected on a wave of anti-Trump sentiment and are now diligently working to ensure his reelection and send the message to the electorate that impeachment is just meaningless partisan theater,” The Atlantic’s Adam Serwer wrote on Twitter.

I am slightly less concerned about the latest turn of events and what it forebodes for impeachment and the 2020 election. This is not because I have any great faith in House Democrats’ strategic vision, which is often lackluster. Rather, it’s because the fundamental forces that have shaped Trump’s presidency thus far have not really changed.

It’s true that some past presidents might have leveraged a political victory like the USMCA into an approval-ratings boost. But a defining trait of Trump’s presidency is that Americans have already made up their minds about him. FiveThirtyEight’s poll tracker, for example, shows that his approval rating has fluctuated between 37 and 45 percent for almost three years—an extraordinarily narrow range by presidential standards. His disapproval numbers haven’t dipped below 50 percent on the tracker since Trump fired FBI Director James Comey in May 2017. Some moments, like Trump’s response to Charlottesville and the government shutdown, had far more tangible impacts than others. But even they didn’t last long.

Trump’s presidential tenure is littered with events that seem game-changing at the time but quickly fade from the public’s radar. I don’t mean to downplay the actual significance of events like the government shutdown in January, Trump’s racist attacks on nonwhite members of Congress over the summer, or even the Ukraine scandal that emerged in September. Moments that would have defined a presidency in other eras are simply ephemeral in this one, soon to be overtaken in the news cycle by the next outrageous tweet, draconian policy change, or act of corrupt self-enrichment. There’s no reason to believe the USMCA deal will be any different.

It’s also doubtful that the USMCA deal, as a matter of economic policy, will help Trump win reelection next year on its own. The deal itself keeps most of the existing Nafta framework intact, and the changes made to it are expected to have a modest impact on the U.S. economy. The International Trade Commission, a federal trade agency, estimated last week that the new agreement would raise the country’s gross domestic product by just 0.35 percent and add only 176,000 jobs. Other factors, like the outcome of Trump’s trade war with China and whether the U.S. enters a recession next year, will have a greater effect on the nation’s economic outlook by next November.

One of the benefits of victory is that you get to brag about winning. So why give Trump something to brag about on the campaign trail, his critics might ask? In all likelihood, he would have celebrated a victory no matter what had transpired today. Trump spent most of the year claiming that his border wall was under construction when it wasn’t. He called the Russia investigation “an attempted overthrow of the government” right after the Justice Department’s inspector general concluded that the inquiry was legitimate and unbiased. He lies whenever it benefits him, and the Republican Party is embracing the strategy as well. Worrying that this president might attack his opponents or boast about his accomplishments is an unsound foundation for political strategy.

Finally, it’s impossible to know whether the USMCA deal’s likely passage will help Democratic lawmakers in swing districts, as some have suggested. If that vote makes it easier for some moderate Democrats to support impeachment in turn, that’s on their conscience. I don’t have any special insight into the minds of American voters. But I’m skeptical that anyone—lawmaker, constituent, or otherwise—who thought Trump committed an impeachable offense yesterday has changed their mind because Pelosi backed minor changes to a complex multilateral agreement today. If the USMCA deal is enough to persuade someone away from impeachment, did they really support it in the first place?