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Life after impeachment: Where do the Democrats go from here? | Cas Mudde | Opinion


The outcome of the Senate “trial” of impeached president Donald Trump was known from the start, but the whole charade was still yet another shock to the US democratic system. Not the expected “acquittal”, but the refusal to hear witnesses, the autocratic argumentation used by his lawyers (in short, whatever the Great Leader deems in His interest, is in the country’s interest), the speed of the “trial”, and particularly the “he did it, but we don’t care” arguments from Republican members of Congress.

I have previously argued that the Democrats were damned if they did (impeach him), damned if they didn’t. In the end, they did the right thing, morally and politically, even if impeachment might not have been the best strategic move. Democrats had to make it clear that Trump’s actions constituted abuse of power – and they did. Unfortunately, a minority of Americans, who hold a majority of power, don’t care. So, where does this leave the Democrats now?

Many Democrats will feel relieved, even if they won’t say it out loud, freed from focusing almost exclusively on a no-win issue. Very soon the senators involved in the Democratic primary will be in New Hampshire, desperately trying to make up for the lost campaign time they were forced to spend in Washington. But are they truly liberated? The impeachment process might be over, but is the impeachment issue over too?

A study of 150,000 voters found that impeaching Trump was in the top four issues for the likely voters of all five Democratic frontrunners. In fact, it was the top issue for Biden voters and the number two issue for Klobuchar and Sanders voters. The latter is particularly surprising, given that Sanders has been the most open about his frustration about impeachment, seeing it as a distraction from his campaign. He will no doubt be keen to return to the “real issues”. Will his supporters?

Given the priority of the issue for Democratic supporters across the spectrum, moving on might be more complex than Sanders hopes. Sure, the end of the impeachment process means that politics returns to “normal” – whatever that means in the Trump era – and space for other issues opens up again. Moreover, senators can get back to the dinners and state fairs that the bizarre primary process has transformed into the “real America”. (They will have photo ops with “real Americans”, at least the ones not too busy being interviewed by the New York Times or NPR.)

But they will have to integrate the impeachment issue one way or another into their campaign. Simply moving on not only ignores an issue many Democratic voters deeply care about, but also leaves unanswered an important question: what went wrong? And, perhaps more importantly, what does this mean for US democracy and the 2020 elections?

The fact of the matter is that the impeachment process was yet another defeat in the Democratic struggle against Trump, and another rout for US democracy. Democrats claimed that their impeachment case “has been proved”, yet, with the exception of Mitt Romney, they were unable to convince any Republican senators. Far more devastating, they were not able to convince the majority of the American people. While the vast majority (84%) of Democrats supported removal, just under half of all Americans (48%) agreed Trump should be impeached, including just 43% of independents.

The Democratic candidates have to find a way to integrate the impeachment issue into a broader narrative that satisfies both Democrats frustrated by Trump’s acquittal and independents frustrated with the focus on impeachment over the past months.

The whole sordid affair once again proved that Trump controls the Republican party and that almost no politically relevant Republican is willing to stand up to him, not even to protect the democratic system. But if this is true, then the political struggle is not only against Trump, but against the Republican party in general, and particularly those in Congress. Which means that the presidential election is only one of the many political battles of November 2020 that Democrats should focus on.

Rather than downplay their defeat, Democrats should openly embrace it. The truth is that many Democrats, including several presidential candidates, supported the impeachment process more or less reluctantly. They were forced to do so by Trump’s blatant abuse of power. Even though they knew impeachment was a political liability, they put country over party – unlike the Republicans.

The Democrats’ message ought to be: impeachment was not a bad strategic choice for the party but a calculated risk for the sake of the country. If they can stick to this message, perhaps the Republicans might have won the impeachment process, but the Democrats will win the impeachment issue.

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