Despite the protestations from Democratic Leaders and handwringing from pundits and consultants, it seems like House Democrats will vote for an impeachment inquiry sooner rather than later. The moral and constitutional arguments for impeachment are much stronger than “Yes, Trump committed crimes, but we can’t impeach him because politics or something.”
With that in mind, Democrats need a plan to manage the politics and maximize the spotlight of an impeachment inquiry. Impeachment is undoubtedly the politically riskier path, but also the one with greater upside for the country and the party. If Democrats are united behind a smart strategy, they can use an impeachment inquiry to prosecute a devastating case against Trump that increases the likelihood that Democrats win the White House, expand our House Majority, and take the Senate.
First, Democrats need a message. They need a concise and compelling argument for what Trump did wrong, how his misdeeds connect to the lives and concerns of voters, and why this merits the extraordinary response of impeachment.
My suggestion for that message is:
Donald Trump has abused his power to hide multiple crimes and massive corruption. He has used the Presidency to punish his enemies, reward his friends, and enrich himself at the expense of the American people. No one is above the law, not even a rich politician.
This narrative (or one like it) needs to be repeated over and over again by every Democratic Member of Congress and talking head. The Democratic SuperPACs should run ads. The grassroots organizations should be delivering this message at the door, on the phone, and in townhalls. The Democratic presidential candidates should make it part of their message. No voter should be confused about why this is happening and what is at stake.
Second, the impeachment inquiry should be broader than the crimes outlined in the Mueller report. A narrow focus on Trump’s obstruction of the Russia investigation makes it easier for the Republicans to accuse Democrats of trying to relitigate 2016, and deprives Democrats the opportunity to introduce evidence of additional impeachable offenses that Trump has committed since taking office. An impeachment inquiry should look broadly at Trump’s abuse of power: his politicization of our law enforcement and intelligence agencies, his refusal to protect our elections and our country from foreign sabotage, and the rampant corruption in an administration where everyone from the president on down enrich themselves at the expense of American taxpayers and America’s security.
Third, an impeachment inquiry should be plotted out more like a TV show than a trial. The star witnesses and high-profile hearings should be spaced out and timed for maximum impact. They should tell a story about Trump’s misdeeds. There should be no rush to get this over with quickly or to meet some artificial timeline. The audience for this show is not the Senate. It’s not Twitter and it’s not the panel on Morning Joe. The audience is the American people – specifically the new and sporadic Democratic voters who came out in 2018, or the independents and Republicans who say they’re most concerned about Trump’s conduct. Our job is to persuade them, not the DC pundit class.
Fourth, turn the relative unpopularity of impeachment into an asset. The polls are clear that impeachment is unpopular. Majorities oppose it. While that fact may change over time, Democrats should make a virtue of the fact that they’re taking a principled position out of conviction, not calculation or convenience.
Fifth, use Senate Republicans as a foil. Mitch McConnell has already indicated that no matter what crimes Trump may have committed, he will do everything in his power to ensure that the president escapes accountability. Democrats should view this as an opportunity to pressure Republican Senators who are vulnerable in 2020. If Cory Gardner or Susan Collins or Martha McSally refuse to hold Trump accountable, paint them as Trump flunkies who put party over country. Every one of them is aiding and abetting the president’s corruption and criminality.
Finally, Democrats must show the public that they can walk and chew gum at the same time. At Trump’s unhinged statement in the Rose Garden last week, he previewed his response to impeachment. Trump wants to run against the “Investigate Everything, Do Nothing” Congress. Democrats should rob this argument of its political potency by laying out a detailed legislative agenda that focuses on the kitchen table issues that matter most to voters. Pass these bills in the House, and then hold public events demanding that McConnell give them a vote in the Senate. None of these bills will become law, but they’ll give Democrats a platform to run on, as well as a response to Republican attacks and media handwringing.
There is no question whether impeachment is the right vote, only if it’s the right politics. I can’t tell you how the politics of impeachment will play out – no one can. But through impeachment proceedings, Democrats have the power to shape the debate, grab the microphone away from Trump, and tell a compelling story about why he’s unfit to be president. The political risk is real, but so is the potential upside – if done well. No matter what Democrats do, Trump and Bill Barr will be falsely accusing Democrats of treason and spinning absurd conspiracy theories about the origins of the Mueller investigation. A well-planned and well-executed impeachment inquiry may be the only way to wrest the microphone from Trump and tell a story on our terms about who Trump is and the damage he has wrought on our country.
Make the case, then do it.