One factor that made it hard, this week, to really feel the historic weight of the House’s vote to impeach President Donald Trump was how little it came up during the Democratic Presidential debate in Los Angeles on Thursday night. That needn’t have been the case. Not even twenty-four hours had elapsed since the two articles passed and, as in the October and November debates, an impeachment question was the first posed to the candidates. Judy Woodruff, of PBS, noted that all of the candidates supported impeachment. “But, unlike 1974 and President Nixon, congressional Democrats have so far not convinced a strong majority of Americans to support impeachment of President Trump,” she said. “Why do you think that is, and what can you say or do differently in the coming weeks to persuade more Americans that this is the right thing to do?”
That query could have set up a compelling tactical, political, and even philosophical exchange about the historical differences between Trump and Nixon, particularly with regard to the support each has received from his party (there were Republicans who turned away from Nixon) and how to approach a trial; Nancy Pelosi, the Speaker of the House, seems to be holding off on sending the articles of impeachment to the Senate, where an acquittal now seems almost certain. But, apart from Senator Amy Klobuchar, of Minnesota, and the businessman and universal-basic-income advocate Andrew Yang, in his inimitable way, the candidates either dodged the question or changed the subject.
Woodruff turned first to former Vice-President Joe Biden. “You know, Judy, it was a constitutional necessity for the House to act as it did,” he said. “And, you know, Trump’s response, to suggest that only half of the American people want to see him thrown out of office now, I find, is dumbing down the Presidency beyond what I even thought he would do.” Perhaps, but it was hard to discern what Biden thought was so dumb: Trump bragging that “only” half the country wanted him out? Or Trump thinking that, absent the strong majority Woodruff spoke of, he should be safe? In a sense, Biden was casting doubt on the premise of Woodruff’s question, which was not dumb: that a democratic consensus on impeachment, and not just a consensus among Democrats, is still worth fighting for. After all, if there is a constitutional necessity—and the evidence suggests that there is—then it might yet be explicable to more Americans.
Biden was ready to fight, but the battle, he suggested, was going to center not on the impeachment proceedings but on the 2020 campaign trail. Indeed, he drew a distinction between those tasks. “My job, and I think the job of all of us up here, is to, in fact—well, that’s not true, some are going to actually be voting in the Senate—but my job is just to go out and make the case why he doesn’t deserve to be President of the United States for another four years.” (The senator-candidates who will be voting include Klobuchar; Bernie Sanders, of Vermont; and Elizabeth Warren, of Massachusetts; along with Cory Booker, of New Jersey, and Michael Bennet, of Colorado, who did not qualify for the debate.) Biden referred to impeachment at another point, too, if obliquely. The subject was coöperating with Republicans, which Biden said he was willing to do, even though “if anyone has reason to be angry with the Republicans, and not want to coöperate, it’s me, the way they’ve attacked me, my son, and my family.” There was applause, and no other candidate even mentioned Hunter Biden, whose relationship with Burisma, a Ukrainian gas company, forms an element of the impeachment story.
Sanders was next, and he told Woodruff that he would approach the issue by reminding people that Trump was, basically, awful. “What I would say is that we have a President who is a pathological liar. We have a President who is running the most corrupt Administration in the modern history of this country, and we have a President who is a fraud.” All true, but the essence of that fraud, Sanders continued, was that Trump had “sold out the working families of this country.” Sanders would be “making the case” by invoking Social Security, Medicaid, and Medicare, as well as the President’s general dishonesty and “temperament.” Those are not quite the charges laid out in the articles of impeachment; Sanders didn’t mention Ukraine. As with Biden, the case he seemed to be talking about was the one that will be prosecuted at polling stations in 2020.
Warren, when asked what more she thought could be said, called the impeachment a “constitutional moment,” which made it sound a bit like a spiritual experience. She then all but put the proceedings, and Woodruff’s question, aside by saying, “That vote will play out over the next several weeks.” Then she was on to the “corruption” of the political system and the benefits that Trump had delivered to the “wealthy and the well-connected,” including tax breaks and ambassadorships. But she didn’t explicitly draw a line between those American pathologies and the impeachment, even though she had done so in the November debate, with regard to Ambassador Gordon Sondland, who had donated a million dollars to Trump’s Inauguration before becoming entangled in Ukrainian matters. She, too, defined prosecuting “the case against” Trump as finding a candidate “willing to get out and fight not for the wealthy and well-connected but to fight for everyone else.” That, again, is a good case, but not the one heading to the Senate.
Klobuchar was next, and her willingness to try to explain the Ukraine scandal came as a relief. “Let me make the case to the American people,” she began. “As a wise judge said, the President is not king in America, the law is king.” The judge she seemed to be referring to was Ketanji Brown Jackson, of the D.C. district court, who last month ruled that the President’s aides could be compelled to appear before Congress. That case is under appeal and is one of the court battles that the Democrats decided not to wait for before proceeding to a vote on impeachment. (Instead, the fight over witnesses became part of the second article, charging obstruction of Congress.) “This is a global Watergate,” she added. “In the case of Watergate, a paranoid President facing election looked for dirt on a political opponent. He did it by getting people to break in. This President did it by calling a foreign leader to look for dirt on a political opponent.” Klobuchar went on to list more witnesses who might be called, such as John Bolton, the former national-security adviser, “who told his own staff to go see a lawyer after they met with the President.” Trump, she suggested, was “scared.”
Then came Mayor Pete Buttigieg, of South Bend, Indiana. “This is beyond public opinions. This is beyond polls. This is beyond politics,” he said, as if being beyond things made them go away. He thought that while people might feel that they were watching “Washington go through the motions,” they shouldn’t “give in to that sense of helplessness, because that’s what they want. They want us to be taken in by that cynicism to where we give up on the process altogether.” (Buttigieg didn’t say who “they” were, other than that “their allies are laughing all the way to the bank.”) But the process he didn’t want people to feel helpless about was not, apparently, impeachment but the Presidential campaign: “No matter what happens in the Senate, it is up to us in 2020. This is our chance to refuse to be taken in by the helplessness.”
But at least Buttigieg was thinking about future moves; Tom Steyer, the businessman, began by boasting about old ones. “Let me remind everyone that I’m the person who started the Need to Impeach Movement, over two years ago,” he began. The audience applauded, and yet Steyer didn’t really manage to explain the connection between a campaign he began to fund more than a year before Trump’s call with the Ukrainian President, Volodymyr Zelensky, and the articles of impeachment that the Senate will consider, though he said that he agreed with Klobuchar that getting witnesses “on TV” would be good. Steyer mentioned that he had eight and a half million signatures on an online petition—but the petition in question demands impeachment for revelations in the Mueller report and what amounts to violations of the emoluments clause, along with unspecified “multiple felonies.” It was hard to tell which impeachment he was talking about.
Yang, who had a generally strong debate performance, came last and, in a way unlike any of the others, engaged seriously with the question of why Americans might not agree on impeachment. First, “we’re getting our news from different sources, and it’s making it hard for us even to agree on basic facts.” (It is notable that Yang used “we” in that sentence, rather than “they.”) He continued, “If you turn on cable-network news today, you would think he’s our President because of some combination of Russia, racism, Facebook, Hillary Clinton, and e-mails all mixed together.” At least some of those factors undoubtedly did help Trump, but Yang thought that voters weren’t buying it, and that what mattered to them—namely, the disappearance of manufacturing jobs—was being ignored. “The more we act like Donald Trump is the cause of all our problems, the more Americans lose trust that we can actually see what’s going on in our communities and solve those problems.” It was sort of a version of Buttigieg’s answer, with more of the background and specifics nailed down.
And Yang was more blunt about where he thought the impeachment was headed. “What we have to do is we have to stop being obsessed over impeachment, which, unfortunately, strikes many Americans like a ball game where you know what the score is going to be, and start actually digging in and solving the problems that got Donald Trump elected in the first place,” he said. The other candidates, on the whole, hoped to transmute the lessons about Trump’s character and dishonesty which emerged from the impeachment into material for the campaign trail. That might work. But seriously grappling with the Ukraine impeachment case is not something Democrats can really avoid if, in the general election, they want to counter Trump’s complaint that he was somehow railroaded or that this was an impeachment in search of a crime, motivated by a general disdain rather than by high-crime specifics—arguments that the Republicans are already making. When Yang said, of Trump, “Make no mistake, he’ll be there at the ballot box for us to defeat,” he was openly predicting something the others had only implied: Trump would not be removed by impeachment. But impeachment will be hard to remove from the fight for the Presidency next year.