Ratcheting up the prospects for intraparty friction, Tom Steyer, the billionaire environmentalist and top Democratic donor, will lash out at congressional Democrats on Thursday over their reluctance to embrace an impeachment push against President Donald Trump.
Speaking at the Netroots Nation gathering of progressive activists in New Orleans, Steyer will accuse party leaders of ducking the debate over Trump’s fitness for office out of political timidity.
“To you, to me, and to millions of Americans, this is all pretty obvious, but not a single person in the Senate Democratic caucus has shown the courage and sense of right and wrong to support impeachment,” he will say, according to an advanced copy of his remarks provided to The Daily Beast. “In fact, there hasn’t been a serious effort to introduce a motion for impeachment in the House since December. That was eight months ago. The Establishment Democrats come here to speak to you because they want your support. But they won’t take an actual step—a real move—to reign in a reckless, lawless, and dangerous president.”
The remarks are the toughest to date that Steyer has directed at members within the party. And they are likely to further isolate him among the Democratic leadership ranks that he has spent years supporting financially.
Steyer seems increasingly comfortable in this role. Through a mix of online activism, media buys, and townhall appearances, he has become the face of the Trump-impeachment push. His efforts have netted his Need to Impeach campaign one of the largest email lists in politics (more than 5.5 million members) and placed Steyer near the middle of 2020 presidential scuttlebutt.
It’s also agitated officials in certain quarters of the party, where there is a strong belief that impeachment talk is premature and counterproductive and an equally strong belief that Steyer is acting out of opportunism more than core conviction. For some of the party’s more seasoned operatives, it’s not clear that the topic works as the foundation of a presidential campaign.
“The ability to build a grassroots network around that issue is not insignificant,” said Joel Benenson, a chief strategist for Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaigns. “The question is can you build a durable presidential campaign on impeaching the incumbent. Keep in mind if that’s part of your campaign it is an implicit acknowledgement that the incumbent is going to win.”
On the Hill, lawmakers who have actually pushed articles of impeachment say they have received little help from Steyer in their efforts. But the larger complaint has come from party leaders, who argue that impeachment is unlikely to happen, at least before Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s probe into Russia collusion concludes, and that talk of it energizes a GOP base that would otherwise be unenthused about the midterm elections.
In recent days, top Trump allies have indeed tried to re-orient the campaign around the impeachment debate. Rudy Giuliani, the president’s lawyer, warned GOP voters on Wednesday that if Democrats took control of Congress, it would result in Trump’s impeachment; while Steve Bannon, Trump’s former top strategist, offered similar stakes in an interview with The Daily Beast.
“It’s very simple, very basic, very clear—it’s the entire package; this is a national referendum on Trump, an up or down vote on his presidency: vote Republican for the Trump program, all of it (or) vote Democrat to impeach him,” Bannon said. “Full stop.”
But despite these individualized warnings, the actual data suggests that impeachment has not been the great galvanizing force for Republican voters that some Democrats fear it could be. Republican and Democratic operatives working on campaigns throughout the country were not able to identify any television ads that explicitly referenced the issue so far. And even on Facebook, where such messages can be used to gather supporters for list-building and fundraising, impeachment as a boogeyman has been used infrequently.
Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) began running a Facebook ad on August 1 saying that his Democratic opponent Rep. Beto O’Rourke (D-TX) wanted to impeach Trump and urged supporters to “Click below to join Ted Cruz and help Cruz defend our values in the Senate.” A now inactive ad that ran from mid-June to the end of July from Rep. Jeff Denham (R-CA), who is in a tough reelection battle in California, used an image of Rep. Al Green (D-TX) with the caption: “BREAKING: Democrats claim they will impeach Trump if they take the majority. ENOUGH!” And Rep. Jason Smith (R-MO) has a Facebook ad saying “Congressional Democrats promise to impeach President Trump if they take the House this November. We can’t let that happen”
One Republican operative working on House races suggested that the topic of impeachment could still come up in fall advertising but that other issues, specifically immigration and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi’s (D-CA) future in Democratic leadership, have done more to fire up the base so far. Steyer, for his part, would welcome the change of topic.
In his remarks to Netroots, he is set to argue that Democrats would benefit from making impeachment a centerpiece issue of the midterms, as it would simplify the party’s messaging and prove aspirational for voters.
“A lot of people in the Democratic Establishment will privately tell me that they agree,” he is set to say. “But when I ask them if they are willing to step up and take action—to take a stand publicly—I get a lot of long-winded non-answers.”