The debate among Democrats and liberals on impeachment right now is: Fast versus slow, narrow versus broad.
It’s understandable that these would emerge as the flash points, but those questions aren’t the right starting place when thinking about impeachment.
The actual first questions the Democrats need to think about are these: 1, what will be the main right-wing talking points? And 2, what will be swing voters’ more sincerely held reservations? If Democrats can find the answers among themselves to these two questions, they’ll also answer the fast-slow, narrow-broad questions the right way.
This is going to be an awful, hideous slog. A death match. Donald Trump, not exactly heretofore associated with the word “hinged,” is going to become more and more unhinged as this goes on, as we saw already with the 80 weekend tweets. Sometimes this will be fun, to watch his public meltdown. But other times it’s going to feel like he and his apologists are shoving bamboo shoots into our eyeballs.
Get ready. They’re going to be presenting a whole alternative-universe narrative that, unless you’ve made it a habit of watching Sean Hannity chat with Gregg Jarrett and Dan Bongino, you don’t know anything about. In this universe, Trump was the victim of Hillary-Ukraine collusion in 2016, which Barack Obama and Joe Biden were in on. They’re going to try to make it impossible for your average citizen to sort through any of it.
So it’s really important that the Democrats do this in a way that makes sense to your average citizen—that helps them sort through it. Here’s how.
There will of course be a gajillion Republican attack lines, but I see two main ones.
1. “This is a total fishing expedition and witch hunt.”
You and I know this to be absurd, but it’s what they’ll say, and people who haven’t been paying close attention—that is, most people—will give it credence because most people think the parties are more or less equally full of it.
I think rebutting this point does argue for a fairly narrow process. That doesn’t necessarily mean stick to Ukraine only. But it does mean stick to matters that are just as clear-cut and easy to explain as Ukraine.
The right-wing propaganda machine has a talent for finding the Achilles’ heel in the Democratic argument and making the whole debate about that. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t, but there’s no reason to give them that opening on impeachment. Any matter that they can make sound trivial or petty or partisan, they will.
2. “The left-wing Democrats are obsessed with impeachment and refusing to do the people’s business.”
This is a particularly rancid lie, as anyone who actually follows Congress knows. The Democratic House has passed dozens of bills that Mitch McConnell won’t move in the Senate. There’s an easy way to rebut this: Pass. More. Stuff.
For all the bills the Democrats have passed, here are some that are still in committee or awaiting hearings: three bills having to do with lower prescription drug costs; one protecting preexisting conditions; a voting rights protection act; a bill about rebuilding schools; a consumer-protection act on surprise billing; and, most of all, an infrastructure bill.
The Democrats absolutely must return from recess ready to pounce on all these bills. Especially infrastructure, because infrastructure is big, and it will get press.
It’s a given that media coverage of impeachment will dwarf these other matters, but that’s no reason not to act. If Democrats pass infrastructure and prescription-drugs bills in these coming weeks and get in essence zero Republican votes, Republicans won’t be able to make the ally-they-care-about-is-impeachment charge in a way that will stick outside their base.
Nancy Pelosi’s mantra lately has been “legislate, investigate, litigate.” That’s exactly right—and notice which one is first. Incidentally, the presidential candidates should follow Pelosi’s lead here. They can talk about impeachment, sure, especially Biden, who’s implicated in Trump’s fictions. But they also should make sure they don’t feed some perception that the nomination contest, too, has become all about Trump’s crimes.
Now, here are what I think of as the two top sincere concerns of middle-of-the-road citizens, and how the Democrats should address those.
1. “This is going to be just another partisan attack.”
Even some voters who don’t like Trump aren’t going to like an impeachment effort that seems over-zealous. This argues for taking it a little slow. Not too slow—it could last into December, which is plenty of time for hearings. But it can’t look rushed or hasty. It has to look fair, like the Democrats are letting the various committee Republicans make their points and letting the administration defend itself (if it chooses to).
Some people now are saying, in essence, strike while the iron is hot. But folks: The iron isn’t hot yet. It’s warming up. Support for impeachment has grown in polls, but in the major post-Ukraine polls, it doesn’t yet top 50 percent, and most of the uptick seems attributable not to independents, but to Democrats following their party’s lead.
It’s crucial to get independent support above 50 percent, and accomplishing that will depend every bit as much on process as on substance—if they see the process as unfair, Democrats will lose them.
2. “We’re so close to the election, let’s just wait for that.”
I think this is actually a compelling argument. Except for one thing: What Trump did with Ukraine—no need for an “allegedly” there, as the basic facts are not in dispute—has directly to do with contaminating that very election. We can’t wait for the election when the president is actively attempting to rig it. We can’t trust that the outcome will genuinely represent the will of the people.
This is some dot-connecting that most people probably won’t do on their own, but if Democrats do it for them, I wager that most non-ideological citizens will think: Okay, I admit that makes some sense.
Again, I emphasize what a hard slog this is going to be. This is the paradox at the heart of this impeachment: The facts are open-and-shut, the case is clearer than truth—but defending the Constitution and winning the political argument are going to be extremely difficult.
But if Democrats make their tactical choices here through these lenses—of pre-butting right-wing talking points and answering legitimate concerns of citizens—they’ll both defend and win.