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Will the impeachment gamble backfire? Donald Trump has much to lose from the Democrats' political plan — but they're playing a dangerous game

Credit: should read BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty

September 26, 2019   4 mins

Imagine for a moment that you are a self-employed electrician in small town Pennsylvania. It’s evening on November 3, 2020, the night of the presidential election. It’s raining. You’re tired. You need to clean the van out before supper.

And you must make another decision. Do you drive to the polling station or do you leave it and go straight home? You backed Trump last time, you think he’s a bit barmy – you and your friends call him ‘a jerk’ – but you don’t like the Democratic candidate either. So do you head home or do you take the trouble to vote in a nation where 45% of eligible people don’t bother?

What helps with the decision?

Impeachment helps. It tells you that the folks in Washington who always think they know best are at it again. They don’t talk much about the economy (which has been booming for you: you’re tired because there’s plenty of work) but they go on and on incessantly about phone calls to Ukraine and how some foreigners don’t like the president. They clutch at pearls because he wants the next G7 conference to be held at his resort: hey, why not? You’d love it to be held at your house if it meant new garden lights on the federal dollar. Give the guy a break, you think.

So you turn off on your way home and take the trouble to park and to queue and to pull the lever for Trump. Without impeachment you would not have bothered. Impeachment reminded you, to steal the old Cold War adage, that Trump is a son of a bitch but he’s your son of a bitch. And he wins re-election because you and thousands like you did what I have just described.

This is the Democratic party nightmare. It is the reason why, until now, moderate Democrats in the House of Representatives have seen impeachment as a pretty clear trap –  a set of hinged steel clamps complete with red flashing lights and a sign saying THIS IS A TRAP –  that they would rather avoid.

But the trap has now ensnared them and in fairness what other course of action could they have taken? It’s almost as if Donald Trump did it deliberately. As if Steve Bannon, the dark artist of his first campaign, were back in the room, wondering how to mess with the heads of the president’s opponents.

That’s not the case of course: Bannon is well off the reservation and Trump lacks the discipline to think this through. But he has tipped the scales now: it looks as if his dealings with Ukraine, and the withholding of Congressional funds he had no business withholding, might amount to something so serious that a failure to take action would look like cowardice and weakness on the part of his enemies.

Where the Russia collusion case was always opaque and multi-faceted and ultimately too tricky for prime time, the Ukraine shenanigans have the feel of something crunchier. The Democrats, if the facts are revealed to be roughly as reported so far, would have to seize the moment.

With what hope of success? On the face of it: none. The Republicans have a 53-to-47 seat advantage in the Senate. Two thirds of Senators are required to confirm impeachment. Even if one or two (Senator Mitt Romney is an obvious candidate) decided to stick it to the Donald, it would not be enough. Mr Trump will not be removed from office as a result of this action.

Not removed from office, and with his base fired up. Yes: folks, it’s Bill Clinton all over again. Impeached in the House of Representatives, with the case thrown out by the Senate. And in the mid-term elections held during the Clinton circus in 1998: his party gained support. In fact the biggest loser was Newt Gingrich, the Republican Speaker of the House who fought hardest for the president to lose his job. Mr Gingrich, defeated in that aim, lost his.

An impeachment process might also involve collateral damage – by severely harming the chances of Joe Biden getting the Democratic presidential nomination, since part of the case would focus on his son’s work in Ukraine (something Trump wanted to have the new Ukrainian government investigate) and the murkiness of top folks’ kids lobbying around the world. Some Democrats would welcome this of course but it would not necessarily be the conversation the party would want to be having at the start of an election campaign with people tuning in and hoping for, well, something fresh.

There is another outcome, though, and it’s more subtle than America’s bitter political arguments generally allow. It is possible that the Democrats could use the televised hearings that impeachment will bring about to persuade the nation that this is not a witch-hunt; that their actions are not governed by politics but by a gallant defence of The American Way. They wanted the Trump presidency to be successful, they would have to say. They understand why people voted for him and respect their decisions. But this corruption is not right. This is not American. And in your heart of hearts you people who voted for him last time know what is right. We trust you and we want to talk seriously to you. Impeachment, then, not as attack but as healing device. The denouement would be a loss of office in the time-worn way, at the polls in 2020.

It is quite a tall order isn’t it? It would take a degree of discipline that even the Democrats’ best friends might suggest is beyond the party. And yet it could work. Because, of course, not many people need to be persuaded for the election to be lost to Mr Trump. If that electrician in Pennsylvania, and his friends, decide that they are not being belittled and patronised by the Democrats any more and stay on the road and go home without bothering to vote on that November night next year, the president would lose. That state would revert to the Democratic party, where it has firmly been in recent years, and the narrow path for a Trump victory would become impassable.

An impeachment, well handled, could work for the Democrats. They need a firm message summing up why Trump has overstepped the mark. Congressional representatives who behave with restraint and decorum, even when they lose the impeachment case. Then a personable and convincing presidential candidate with captivating ideas about the future, selected at the end of an uplifting and positive set of primaries.

What could possibly go wrong?

Justin Webb presents the Americast podcast and Today on Radio Four. His Panorama documentary “Trump the Sequel”, is available now on  Iplayer


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