Thursday, October 03, 2019

This Week in Impeachment: Does Trump Need a Good Strategy?

Over the two weeks or so since the impeachment of Donald Trump became likely, a series of news articles has chronicled Trump's strategic and tactical response to his new predicament. Anyone wondering whether Trump would adopt Bill Clinton's playbook from 1998—acknowledge impeachment as little as possible in public; portray yourself as more concerned with Americans' policy priorities than your own personal conflicts; build an adept political "war room" in the White House to respond to news developments and distribute talking points to partisan allies—has by now received an answer. As David Frum of The Atlantic observed earlier this week, Trump has taken the opposite approach from Clinton in many respects: he talks about impeachment obsessively, he shows no contrition for any aspect of the case, and he invests little in trying to persuade anyone who isn't already a Trump supporter that his impeachment is unwarranted.

It was clear enough even before these recent developments that Trump is much more a creature of emotion than a political calculator in the Clinton mold. The inadvisable admissions and uncontrolled outbursts of the past few days are hardly out of line with past behavior, though their growing intensity suggests that the prospect of impeachment is placing a decided strain on the presidential temperament. Put simply, this doesn't have the feel of a master strategy being coolly moved into place.

But does it really matter?

Clinton's response made sense because congressional Democrats' willingness to stand by him was dependent, as he perceived it, on the belief that they would not pay an electoral price for doing so. It was critically important, from this point of view, for Clinton to remain popular with swing voters and for other Democrats to hold their own in trial heat polls against Republican opponents; if the public turned against Clinton, so would key members of his own party, thus jeopardizing his presidency. The impeachment strategy, then, was merely a specific application of the Clinton-era Democrats' broader political approach: make tactical concessions here and there in order to gain and hold the political middle ground against the Republican opposition.

Trump is not only a very different kind of politician than Clinton, but he also leads a very different kind of party. Many congressional Republicans worry more—for good reason—about internal primary challenges from the right than Democrats do about a backlash on the left, which keeps them publicly loyal to a president who remains very popular among the Republican grassroots. Trump's belief that general elections are won more by keeping the party base stoked and mobilized than by reassuring swing voters of his moderation and pragmatism is shared widely among Republican politicians and activists. Trump can also rely on the conservative media infrastructure to supply a stream of arguments in his defense for other Republicans to echo, making the creation of a central command post staffed by political communication and research professionals a less necessary step for him than it was for Clinton.

So even if Frum is right that Clinton and Trump have chosen diametrically opposed counterimpeachment strategies, it's very possible that they will both wind up facing the same outcome: a more-or-less party-line vote to impeach in the House of Representatives, followed by a more-or-less party-line vote to acquit in the Senate. It's fair to wonder whether Trump would actually benefit after all from following his predecessor's more deliberate approach. Perhaps the answer is no. But there are a few reasons why a better strategy might actually help Trump:

1. It might exacerbate Democratic divisions. One key difference between 1998 and 2019 is that Clinton's impeachment was driven by a committed Republican congressional leadership (especially then-majority whip Tom DeLay), while Nancy Pelosi and other top House Democratic officials have been visibly unenthusiastic about impeaching Trump due to the perceived risk that it poses to the party's most electorally vulnerable members. A savvier White House would be in position to exploit this internal tension by turning down the rhetorical heat and allowing moderate Democrats to have second thoughts, but instead it is providing more impeachment fodder seemingly every time that the president speaks in public. Trump is already acting as if his impeachment is inevitable, thereby making it—at the least—more probable.

2. Even a few Republican defections matter. The strength of partisan ties and the power of the conservative media guarantee that most Republicans will stick with their president, thereby ensuring that he will continue in office unless the Ukraine scandal metastasizes dramatically from its current state. But if a handful of congressional Republicans break with Trump, it bolsters the legitimacy of the impeachment effort and undercuts the counterargument that the whole thing is a Democratic power grab. Even if the public doesn't notice too much or remember too long, attentive elites are much more likely to treat the Ukraine scandal as a serious violation if there is an element of bipartisanship to the impeachment proceedings.

Some Republican allies will be content to defend Trump regardless of circumstance, but others will be worried about getting caught out on a limb that gets sawed off when the president's story changes or new facts surface that disprove previous claims. The release of the "smoking gun tape" sealed Richard Nixon's fate in 1974 in part because Republicans in Congress discovered that Nixon had been lying not just to the press but to them, and allowing them to repeat those lies to their constituents. Several key Republicans have already grown very quiet rather than commit themselves to any particular position or version of events, and there doesn't seem to be much about the president's handling of the crisis that is privately reassuring to members of Congress.

3. Trump still has another election to win. Clinton, of course, was in the midst of his second term in 1998, but Trump is facing an election next year burdened by a subpar approval rating and a highly energized opposition party. Even if the current crisis doesn't further damage his popularity, it still makes it harder for him to win over a few skeptical voters and thus strengthen his position prior to the 2020 race. Impeachment may not itself have major electoral ramifications, but it could still exact an opportunity cost on a presidency that could really use a few quiet months. Clinton believed that getting drawn into daily rhetorical combat would erode his ability to claim the high ground. But Trump is a fighter by nature, and can't resist the partisan fray regardless of the political benefits that might come from adopting the veneer of statesmanship.