Democratic voters despise Donald Trump. A leading donor has spent millions urging the president’s ouster. And many liberals say their party must adopt bigger, bolder ideas to motivate the base.
So why haven’t Democrats embraced calls for impeachment?
Interviews with leading strategists and grassroots liberals reveal that the party’s leaders have quietly made clear that calls to remove the president are bad politics — and perhaps surprisingly, its activist base doesn’t care all that much about it.
“Frankly, it’s a little abstract for someone terrified of losing coverage because they have a pre-existing condition or can’t afford their insulin,” said Ben Wikler, Washington director for the liberal advocacy group MoveOn.org.
MoveOn.org and other grassroots progressive groups called for Trump’s impeachment last year, after the president fired FBI Director James Comey. But in part because those same groups haven’t pushed other Democrats to adopt the same position, many Democrats, including House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, have called impeachment talk premature, even as a new Washington Post-ABC poll finds that 49 percent of Americans say Congress should start impeachment proceedings, and 75 percent of Democrats say the same.
Most remarkably, no Democratic candidate in a battleground House race has come out in favor of impeachment — despite most running in competitive, multi-candidate primaries where such a position would have conceivably helped them win over voters infuriated by the president.
Democratic strategists say that supporting impeachment is bad politics, and they have the polling to back it up.
An internal from the Democratic Congressional Campaign shared with McClatchy found that 51 percent of independent voters said that impeachment would make them less likely to vote for the candidate, with 43 percent saying it would make them much less likely to back that candidate.
A Suffolk University/USA Today poll released Wednesday also found that just 44 percent of voters support impeachment, a number likely to be even lower in the multitude of right-leaning districts House Democrats hope to win.
The DCCC shared that polling with candidates, though an operative with the committee stressed the issue rarely came up in conversations. The DCCC aide added that they didn’t see a single primary this year where a candidate’s position against impeachment hurt them in a primary.
Democrats are also cognizant that Republicans are keen to make impeachment an issue, hopeful that the threat to Trump will energize the president’s electoral base.
“I think coalescing around impeachment before Bob Mueller has issued a report would be seen as very partisan,” said Democratic Rep. Ro Khanna, a liberal lawmaker from California’s Bay Area. “You impeach a president not because he is not civil, not because he represents terrible values. You impeach a president if the president has committed high crimes and misdemeanors.”
Democratic strategists and liberal activists say their electorate is aware that promises to remove from Trump are, for now, unrealistic. Removing a president from office requires a majority vote in the House and two-thirds support in the Senate — thresholds Democrats aren’t yet close to reaching.
Party strategists say they also think some Democratic voters are hesitant to embrace impeachment because they know it would put Vice President Mike Pence in charge. In the view of these voters, Pence isn’t much of an improvement.
“There is, at a gut level, a real fear of Pence,” said one Democratic strategist familiar the party’s House primaries.
The Democratic establishment’s skepticism about impeachment isn’t a surprise, but the activists’ indifference to it might be. Liberal leaders have encouraged their voters to push for big ideas that motivate their base, and few policy prescriptions would have a more immediate impact than removing Trump from office.
But progressive grassroots leaders say their base thinks that addressing the issues that gave rise to Trump, like deep economic inequality, as more pressing than dealing with the president himself.
“Anyone that has been supportive of impeachment knows that the problems facing this country are most clearly visible in the corruption and illegality coming from this White House, but they don’t’ stop there,” said Neil Sroka, spokesman for the liberal advocacy group Democracy for America. “So we have to make the case to voters that it’s bigger than just impeachment and accountability.”
Sroka said he thinks Democrats shouldn’t be afraid to say they support impeachment, but he wouldn’t encourage them to make it a centerpiece of their platform.
“It’s not necessary to be a litmus test,” he said. “The only litmus test in the 2018 race is, are you willing to be a check on the president?”
That indifferent attitude of Democratic candidates toward impeachment stands in stark contrast from the way many of them treated an issue like single-payer health care, which has caught on much more widely. Democratic strategists have also voiced concern about the politics of that issue, but their skepticism hasn’t stopped many battleground Democratic nominees from adopting it.
“Everyone knows that significant majority of the country thinks Trump is an atrocity,” Wikler said. “The place where Democratic are trying to stand out is in the progressive vision they’d like to replace him with.”
Around the corner
All of that said, Democratic strategists and liberal leaders alike cautioned that even though impeachment doesn’t yet have support of many Democrats, it could still emerge in the near future.
The outcome of special counsel Bob Mueller’s investigation could encourage many in the party to change their position — many Democrats, in fact, say they are awaiting its results before deciding whether to back impeachment. And the politics could also shift if Democrats win a majority in the House, as many in the party expect they will, when impeachment would suddenly become more plausible (though Democrats would still almost surely lack the two-thirds vote necessary in the Senate).
“A lot of Democrats would like to have that conversation only once they’re in a position to do something about it,” Wikler said.