The Slatest

Democrats Are Maaaaaaybe Starting to Find the Right Balance on the Tricky Politics of Impeachment

The four Democrats are seen from behind in the glare of TV lights.
Massachusetts Rep. Richard Neal (chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, which is seeking Donald Trump’s tax returns) with Democratic caucus leaders James Clyburn, Nancy Pelosi, and Steny Hoyer on Capitol Hill in 2017. Drew Angerer/Getty Images

It’s been a long week for Democratic leaders in Congress, though aren’t they all? First there were Nancy Pelosi’s comments to the New York Times about wanting to avoid the subject of impeachment, which triggered criticism by purist know-it-alls outraged that she seemed to be suggesting Democrats would let President Donald Trump completely off the hook. Then Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin refused to give Congress Trump’s tax returns. Then Attorney General William Barr refused to give Congress the unredacted Mueller report. Then the Times reported that Trump once attested on tax documents to having personally been a billion dollars in the red over the period of a decade—a revelation that seems to indicate he was not a great businessman and may or may not be evidence of a criminal tax avoidance strategy but is, in any case, a good reminder that his life has been a long series of bogus claims and cover-ups.

The week’s arc nicely demonstrated the trap that congressional Democrats are in. On the one hand, Trump drives national news and does a lot of things that are seemingly illegal, which Democrats are compelled to investigate by the Constitution, their own base, and—given that the president and his party will shamelessly exploit every possible avenue for partisan advantage—simple self-preservation. On the other hand, voters—including most independents and even a fair number of Dems—generally say they don’t want to see Trump impeached. And voters do care a lot about other issues, like health care coverage, that are good for the Democrats, if only they could spend more time talking about them instead of POTUS.

It’s a tough row/needle to hoe/thread, but in the last day or so, a coherent way of handling the situation seems to be peeking its way through. The message Democrats are now sending is: We don’t want to have to take our eye off Everyday Issues That Matter to the American People to talk about impeachment, but we will “check” the president’s corrupt behavior if we have to, for the good of the country. Yes, the Democrats are now presenting themselves as the aging lawman getting called out of his armchair to save the town. And it’s not a terrible plan!

Take a look at what House Dems are saying:

• “If the facts lead us to that objective, so be it,” said House second-in-command Steny Hoyer about impeachment.

• “Obstruction of Congress, following on the obstruction of the Mueller investigation, does strengthen the case to move forward with an impeachment proceeding,” said House Intelligence Chairman Adam Schiff.

• “We get the narrative from our leadership that we all got elected on health care and the economy and all of that, but we also got elected to impose checks and balances on a president who is unchecked and unbalanced,” said Virginia Rep. Gerald Connolly, throwing in some cute wordplay just to annoy me personally.

• “I think there is a growing frustration among my constituents that we need to do something,” said California’s Jackie Speier.

• “My grandfather used to say that duck hunting is a lot of fun until the ducks start firing back. We’re starting to fire back,” said Jamie Raskin, a Maryland congressman on the Judiciary Committee and the grandson of an insane person.

• “We’re going to do the right thing, that’s just the way it is, and it is going to be based on fact and law and patriotism, not partisanship or anything else,” said House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.

As the New York Times has noted, what’s happening here is the party “casting the decision about impeachment in terms of the Constitution’s system of checks and balances — a message they believe voters can easily relate to.” This approach, in addition to being narratively coherent, is backed by data: In the leadup to last year’s election, polls repeatedly found that while voters were indeed concerned about quality-of-life issues, they also generally believed that a vote for Democrats was a vote to constrain Trump. Overall, a Monmouth University poll found that 52 percent of the country believed that “keeping Trump in check” should be a “major priority” in Congress, with only 25 percent saying that legislators “should not prioritize” the task. Similar results were found even in states Trump won in 2016, like Arizona and Ohio, and the trend was particularly pronounced in suburban swing districts, many of which Democrats flipped from Republican control. Majorities of poll respondents, to the current day, also believe that Trump committed crimes before becoming president and that he is not honest or “fit” to be president.

Meanwhile, the Navigator group, which conducts polls to test how Democratic Party messages should be framed, recently released a report finding that the public is basically split on continued investigation of “collusion” with Russia but solidly behind continued investigation of “obstruction,” “pay-to-pay corruption” and other “unethical” behavior. In other words, relitigating 2016 in order to purge an illegitimate president is out, and reluctantly but solemnly protecting the Constitution is in. In the end, on the merits, they pretty much amount to the same thing—aggressively investigating the president, possibly through formal impeachment proceedings—but hey, that’s politics, so whatever!