President Trump’s impeachment began with four possible scenarios, and Wednesday’s affirmative impeachment vote in the House of Representatives eliminated one. Though it’s technically still possible impeachment could be followed by Trump resigning or being convicted in the GOP-controlled Senate, the most likely remaining outcome is that the Senate will acquit him.
And you know what comes next. After the Senate trial lets Trump off the hook, probably sometime in January, he’ll shift into full campaign mode, crowing incessantly about how those lying, do-nothing, witch-hunting, illegal, short, small, sad, weak, dog-like Democrats couldn’t get him.
This raises the question: Which of the 2020 Democratic candidates would be best equipped to respond? Who in the primary election and, more important, as the presidential nominee, could muster the strongest defense against Trump’s impending narrative? Let’s consider the seven Democrats who will appear on Thursday’s debate stage.
Joe Biden: Holding steady at the front of the pack, former Vice President Joe Biden finds himself in a unique position, because it is his family Trump allegedly asked Ukraine to investigate. Depending on Biden’s reaction — and his options are no doubt undergoing extensive focus group testing right now — this could be a weakness or a strength.
Polling shows very few Americans’ opinions were changed by the impeachment inquiry. But some voters, mostly independents, really did go into this unconvinced or at least uncertain enough that they could be swayed. If Trump’s acquittal persuaded those people of his innocence, if it suggested to them that he legitimately wanted to root out corruption, Biden’s reputation could suffer among the swing voters he’d need in a tight race. On the other hand, if Biden can frame the situation as proof that he poses the greatest threat to Trump, his link to the impeachment may be an asset in the primary. In the general, it could present him as in a sense (namely, the theatrical political sense Trump cares about more than policy) the greatest rejection of Trump.
Sens. Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, and Amy Klobuchar: I group the three senators in the race together because I suspect their ability to respond to a post-impeachment Trump will depend significantly on how they conduct themselves in his Senate trial. The balance of campaign events and trial attendance will be tricky and tiring (and very possibly a boon to Biden), and each will have to demonstrate to marginal voters that their actions as impeachment jurors are not unfairly biased by their goals as presidential candidates. Accusations of partisanship valued over truth are already flying fast and thick in Washington, and these senators have a giant target on their backs.
As rival candidate and entrepreneur Andrew Yang has commented, the senators could skip the trial — the vote math makes it extremely unlikely theirs would be the decisive vote — but so far, none have indicated plans to play hooky. Warren, at least, has cast participation as her constitutional duty.
South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg is the most popular candidate without a familial or official link to the impeachment. He’ll be able to continue campaigning, like Biden, but without the constant barrage of questions about Trump’s corruption claims. “Of course,” Buttigieg told The New Yorker, “as a presidential candidate, you have no real part in [impeachment]” — true, for him — “And so my perspective is to focus on the day after Trump is president. … [W]e need somebody capable of turning the page as well as winning the fight.”
This emphasis on moving on already, uniting after Trump’s division, may be difficult to maintain amid a steady stream of Trump’s taunts designed to never let Democrats forget their inability to remove him from office. I mean, you can see how this would go in the general election debates, right? Buttigieg makes a painfully earnest plea for good-faith cooperation to solve our nation’s problems, and Trump, snickering at Buttigieg’s age, height, and name, jumps into to envision himself as a golden Colossus astride the swamp.
Like Buttigieg, Yang has no impeachment connection. Unlike Buttigieg, his average poll numbers have never broken 5 percent. But also unlike Buttigieg — whose August comment that Trump voters are “looking the other way on racism” has been deemed by some Trump fans as a new “deplorables” moment — Yang has expressed a real concern for the communities that supported Trump.
“Things are disintegrating in communities around our country, and our government does not care,” he said in an interview. “You could say that Trump’s victory was a giant cry for something — help, anger, frustration — and the Democrats, to me, have not taken the message to heart.” From there, Yang could maneuver to respond to Trump’s impeachment by telling voters they deserve better. “Sure, Trump wasn’t removed from office,” he could say, “but don’t you think you deserve a president whose character isn’t so questionable, who cares about you more than he cares about his own political fate?” Unfortunately for Yang, if other, more popular candidates effectively make the same move in the primary, he’ll never get to do it in the general.
Before he ran for president, billionaire and philanthropist Tom Steyer spent two years and millions of his own money on Need to Impeach, an organization lobbying for Trump’s impeachment. The group has scaled back its activities since Steyer’s campaign began, but that history puts him in an unusual position for campaigning against a post-impeachment Trump.
On the one hand, Steyer could seek to claim partial credit for holding Trump accountable. On the other hand, after acquittal, will “It was right even though it failed” be a compelling story? If Democratic voters decide impeachment was a waste of time and energy that could have been more usefully devoted elsewhere (like retaking the Senate), Steyer might find himself in an awkward spot.