There is no playbook, naturally, because it’s never happened before. But after Donald Trump on Wednesday became only the third U.S. president to be impeached—and the first heading into an election year—Democratic strategists are betting they can turn that historic rebuke into a winning election strategy in 2020 even if, as expected, Trump is acquitted by the Senate.
How? With a strategy that focuses on Trump’s documented abuses of power—and allegedly puppetlike relationship to Russian President Vladimir Putin—and depends on the kind of reputational damage that clung to the last impeached president, Bill Clinton, and helped cost his would-be successor, Al Gore, the 2000 election, Democratic strategists say.
With exoneration by the Republican-dominated Senate all but certain, Democrats believe they can win in the end by selling the idea that Trump’s offenses were real and disqualifying. They will argue that the president got off only because of the slavish devotion of his Republican Party, which, following Trump’s lead, is peddling the Kremlin line that Ukraine interfered in the 2016 U.S. election, even though this notion has been discredited by U.S. intelligence. (One new social media meme has it that the Republican Party’s “GOP” nickname no longer stands for “Grand Old Party” but “Gang of Putin.”) The Democrats will no doubt add that Trump’s expected swift acquittal in the Senate was engineered by none other than “Moscow Mitch” McConnell, as House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has called the Senate majority leader. The epithet made its way around Washington earlier in 2019 when McConnell and Senate Republicans blocked the advancement of election security legislation shortly after former special counsel Robert Mueller testified about Russian election interference.
In remarks to reporters following Wednesday night’s vote, Pelosi even suggested she’d delay sending the articles of impeachment over to McConnell until she could be assured of a fair trial, because “so far we haven’t seen anything that looks fair to us.”
The Democratic strategy has considerable risks. While most polls show the nation evenly divided on impeachment and Trump consistently below 50 percent approval, a USA Today/Suffolk University poll of registered voters taken the week before the impeachment vote showed Trump defeating his leading Democratic challengers, one of the first polls to record such a result. In a hypothetical matchup, Trump led former Vice President Joe Biden by 3 percentage points, Sen. Bernie Sanders by 5 points, and Sen. Elizabeth Warren by 8 points.
And Republicans are already planning ad campaigns that actually make use of the impeachment vote—building on the points made in the president’s angry letter to Pelosi on Tuesday. In the letter, Trump trotted out debunked conspiracy theories about Biden, whom Trump falsely said “used his office and $1 billion dollars of U.S. aid money to coerce Ukraine into firing the prosecutor who was digging into the company paying his son millions of dollars.” The president has argued that his now-infamous July 25 phone call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, during which he pressed Zelensky to investigate Biden and his son Hunter (who sat on the board of a Ukrainian company), was motivated by a genuine concern about corruption in Ukraine. That phone call is at the heart of the articles of impeachment against Trump.
The Republicans will argue that the impeachment vote only further proves that the Democratic Party has been “hijacked by the radical left,” as Republican Rep. James Sensenbrenner of Wisconsin put it during Wednesday’s impeachment debate, echoing what has become the party line. In the worst-case scenario for Democrats, not only does Trump win reelection, but the Democrats also lose the House, since nearly 30 Democratic members from moderate districts that Trump won in 2016 voted for impeachment.
Part of the new Democratic playbook is informed, or at least influenced, by what happened to Clinton after his 1998 impeachment. While Clinton did gain a surge of popularity following his acquittal, the lingering bad taste of his misbehavior—and the fact that he escaped punishment— caused trouble for his vice president, Al Gore, in 2000, as well as for Hillary Clinton in 2008, when she lost the Democratic nomination to the insurgent Barack Obama.
Former Clinton pollster Stanley Greenberg noted that while the 42nd president savored the resignation of his impeachment nemesis, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, after Republicans lost in the 1998 midterms, the damage to Clinton’s reputation had been done. While job approval is typically what correlates well with the next presidential election, “in 2000 it was personal favorability, in which Clinton had a negative rating,” Greenberg told Foreign Policy. Another leading Democratic strategist agreed that “people had a bad taste in their mouth” because of Clinton’s confession that he lied about his White House affair with an intern, and George W. Bush was able to run a successful campaign to restore honor and integrity to the office.
“Though he got off, people were still kind of angry and unsatisfied that there was no punishment for him,” the strategist said.
The challenge will be to portray Trump in an analogous light once he is acquitted by the Senate and, as his wont, then declares himself completely innocent, strategists say. It will be to show that Trump did seriously abuse his power by holding U.S. foreign aid hostage to his attempt to pressure Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky into investigating Joe Biden—and that Trump consistently acts as if he were Putin’s tool, echoing the Kremlin line that it was Ukraine, not Russia, that has been mainly interfering in U.S. politics.
According to another leading Democratic strategist, Elaine Kamarck, the director of the Center for Effective Public Management at the Brookings Institution: “You counter the Republican line by playing up three solid years of his utter obsequiousness to Russia.”