There’s no shortage of ideological and policy rifts dividing Democrats these days. But the most politically perilous schism a year after Donald Trump’s startling upset isn’t Bernie vs. Hillary or the resist Trump vs. compromise camps: It’s whether to call for the president’s impeachment.
After sitting on a low boil for months, the battle between activists and lawmakers is on. Liberal billionaire Tom Steyer’s national ad buy calling for impeachment made sure of it, triggering a Trump outburst that ended nearly a year’s worth of efforts by Democratic leaders to keep a lid on the internal divide over how and when to talk about ousting him.
“We’re not doing these tactical political considerations, we actually think the health and safety of American citizens is at risk,” Steyer, the hedge fund manager-turned-environmentalist, told POLITICO. Steyer is the Democratic Party’s single largest donor — giving $165 million to the party and its causes in the past two election cycles.
To the Californian, the idea of holding back on Trump is offensive: “Are you going to put your political calculations for your career or your party ahead of the health and safety of the American people? If you are, I have no time for you. That is just wrong.”
Few Democrats have been willing to proactively and fully disavow such calls — at least in public. But many powerful lawmakers and operatives say it’s still far too early to talk that way absent concrete evidence of impeachable offenses, not to mention the presence of a Republican-controlled House and Senate that would make Trump’s removal from office all but impossible. Anyway, the party itself must do a better job of laying the groundwork before taking that next step, argue those Democrats, including many on the party’s leadership teams.
Their concern isn’t just that such a push would be unsuccessful. It’s that appearing overzealous in opposition to Trump would play right into Republicans’ hands as they try hang onto the House of Representatives and bolster their majority in the Senate.
A new POLITICO/Morning Consult poll reveals that just 40 percent of voters nationwide believe impeachment proceedings should begin — the same proportion as four months ago, and hardly changed at all from May, when the question was first asked — while 49 percent disagree.
But as Democrats try to win back the House — and potentially the Senate — in 2018, the disagreement threatens to represent another painful complication for a party that’s already desperately struggling to agree on tactics and messaging. The clash has already started to expose nerves among party leaders and funders at a time they think they could instead be highlighting the GOP’s own civil war.
“Impeachment’s a legitimate issue, but we have steps to take before we get there,” said veteran Democratic strategist Simon Rosenberg, the president of the NDN think tank. “Democrats have to invest far more than they have in creating a dialogue in public about what’s gone wrong with the Trump administration — and the attack on our democracy — before we can even get to discuss impeachment.”
Few of the party’s biggest individual names have outwardly called for Trump’s impeachment, but large outside progressive groups like MoveOn.org and Democracy For America have been publicly pushing the issue for months, while lawmakers like California Rep. Maxine Waters have gained substantial notoriety for their own calls for Trump’s removal since shortly after he took office.
There’s been little substantive progress on those campaigns, but other House members including California Rep. Brad Sherman and Texas Rep. Al Green have introduced articles of impeachment. Tennessee Rep. Steve Cohen has been talking about doing the same, while trying to win over both Democrats and retiring Republicans to his cause.
Yet the issue only burst into the open when lawmakers and the party’s committees widely ignored a letter from Steyer urging them to stand for ousting Trump in October. After receiving hardly any calls from officials in response to his push, the Californian — who has been mulling senatorial and gubernatorial bids — launched a petition and placed more than $10 million worth of ads on national cable, figuring that lawmakers could hardly ignore his demand if he demonstrated a massive uprising on the matter.
The petition has received over 1.5 million signatures since its launch in October, including roughly 200,000 on the day Trump lashed out at Steyer on Twitter as “Wacky and totally unhinged” upon seeing the ad. Steyer’s team aired the spot on Fox and Friends — the president’s go-to morning show — in an intentional provocation. (FOX is now refusing to run the ad.)
The billionaire’s calculation that Democrats must focus more on energizing base voters comes in part from a round of surveys he commissioned, according to a series of polling memos prepared for Steyer and obtained by POLITICO. One memo reports that 78 percent of Democrats and Independents nationwide favor impeachment, and that nine in ten say it’s not enough for pols to talk about standing against the president — they must act on that stance.
“We are saying something that is obviously true and that Americans know, and that, certainly, the elected officials in Washington know,” Steyer said in the interview. “For whatever reason the political establishment does not want to talk about impeachment, but the American people do — and that’s what we hear loud and clear.”
Yet the issue has also provided a clear way for pols to raise their profiles. Steyer, who has refused repeatedly to rule out a presidential run of his own, also polled Iowans likely to caucus for a Democrat in 2020 and New Hampshire voters likely to participate in 2020’s Democratic primary, the memos reveal. The pollsters found that 82 percent of Iowa Democrats and 78 percent of New Hampshire Democrats favor impeachment — Steyer on Friday began running his ad, which features his direct-to-camera appeal, in the early-voting states.
And in another sign that his push is no one-off, on Friday he brought on Brad Deutsch, the election lawyer who worked for Bernie Sanders in 2016, to help in the effort.
Yet Steyer’s push has annoyed a range of party officials in Washington who grumble that his money would be better spent elsewhere.
Neither Democrats’ House leader Nancy Pelosi nor the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee have issued guidance to lawmakers or candidates about how to talk about impeachment. But Pelosi’s advice, when requested by colleagues, has been that they should say how they feel and quickly pivot to policy, according to a Democrat familiar with those discussions.
Their primary worry is that since the most competitive House races of 2018 are likely to be in districts where Trump won or came close, the push could backfire by solidifying the GOP base. That’s similar to what happened in June’s suburban Atlanta special House election, when Democrat Jon Ossoff stopped railing against Trump after DCCC focus groups showed voters turning against him.
For members who face different concerns back home, however, such reasoning seems self-defeating.
“I understand why the leadership don’t think it’s wise politically, but I think the base is more important,” said Cohen.
“It’s easy to feel like, what’s the matter if Democrats call for it when Republicans control the process? I can understand a little of where that’s coming from, but the reality is that’s exactly why we need to campaign on it,” said Democracy For America executive director Charles Chamberlain.
Many party strategists predict impeachment will only become a serious campaign issue if Democrats appear close to taking back the House later in 2018, and they insist it is unlikely to surface in party primaries due to its nature as a national — not a local — issue.
But it is likely to distract from topics that are more important to voters, like health care and wages, they insist — much to the chagrin of Democrats who believe the party is missing an opportunity to at least begin a national discussion that could give some candidates a chance to break out.
Nonetheless, Republicans are already planning the very thing Democratic leaders are hoping to avoid: major ad campaigns that paint them as impeachment-obsessed extremists.
“They’ve been very clear that if they were to win back the House, the first, second, and the third order would be to impeach the president,” warned Corry Bliss, chief of the Paul Ryan-linked Congressional Leadership Fund super PAC. “We’ll spend millions upon millions of dollars running ads reminding voters across the country on what Nancy Pelosi and her liberal San Francisco values would do if the keys to the kingdom were handed back over to them — and one of the first things they’d do is impeach the president.”
Some GOP groups have already started criticizing Democrats who appear with impeachment backers like Waters (such as South Carolina gubernatorial candidate James Smith). Steven Law — the former chief of staff to Mitch McConnell who now runs the Senate Leadership Fund super PAC, recalled how Republicans’ last impeachment push backfired electorally, in 1998.
Not that such warnings are stopping Democrats like Cohen, a sixth-term lawmaker who serves in a Memphis-area district that Trump lost by 58 points in 2016.
“I’m never worried — no matter what you do they’re going to run against you,” he said. “They’re going to lie about you.”
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