Issue #94: Impeachment Changes the Democratic Nomination Fight

October 4, 2019

Warren Takes Command of the Liberal Lane

Sanders Suspends Campaign & TV Ads After Cardiac Procedure

Impeachment Fallout for Biden Could Make Him – or Break Him

By Al Giordano

Twelve years ago, this week, I published an essay in the Boston Phoenix newspaper outlining how a freshman US senator from Illinois would come from behind to win the 2008 Democratic presidential nomination. Barack Obama would accomplish that, I projected, by excelling at small donor fundraising and by training his troops in community organizing.

People back then were saying things like, “it’s too early for polls,” but by that stage of the campaign there was already enough data available to begin to map how key sectors of the Democratic primary electorate were moving, and to therefore game out the rest of the story.

In the seven national polls that had published during the month of September 2007, Barack Obama had been polling at between 21 percent and 28 percent. Hillary Clinton had polled at between 34 percent and 53 percent. (Al Gore’s name had been included on a few polls in which Clinton support was at the lower end.)

North Carolina Senator John Edwards – after he sprinkled some newly-adopted class warfare rhetoric to his stump speech – had been anointed by some white activists and bloggers as “the only true progressive” in the race (Sanders spox David Sirota was one of them) and was stuck at between ten and fifteen percent. All other candidates, including Joe Biden, Bill Richardson, Chris Dodd, Dennis Kucinich and Mike Gravel, were polling at between one and three percent.

None of the lower-tier candidates gained traction going forward. After coming in second in Iowa, Edwards quickly faded and dropped out within a month. It became a two-horse race until the winner, Barack Obama, had gathered a majority of delegates. As president he named the runner-up, Hillary Clinton, as secretary of state.

We are now at that moment in the 2020 Democratic nomination calendar when we can see some similar dynamics: two clear frontrunners in Joe Biden and Elizabeth Warren, a “third wheel” in Bernie Sanders being painted as the “only progressive” by a dwindling group of supporters, and a bevy of two-percenters hanging on by their fingernails, but also with the following twist.

One difference this round is that two other candidates have proved more durable and together have formed a mid-level tier: Pete Buttigieg is polling at between three and seven percent, Kamala Harris at between three and six percent. Most of those are votes that Joe Biden, as the mainstream Democrat (a term I consider more accurate and less loaded than “establishment” or “centrist”) frontrunner should be getting. Yet doubts about Biden are keeping Harris and Buttigieg alive. The path for either of them at this point depends on a Biden stumble, or some similar major event to shake up the primary dynamics.

And here we are in October of 2019: such a wild card has just been shuffled into the Democratic primary deck: the specter of impeachment. Ante up!

The debate over whether impeachment will prove a good or bad thing electorally for Democrats in 2020 is moot: If it is a fait accompli that the Democratic US House majority will get the ball rolling and then the Republican US Senate will adjudicate the matter, for better or for worse, in sickness or in health, until death do us part, impeachment we thee wed.

Those of us who had tactical reservations about impeachment – I was one – will now shift to sell and defend it.

The chances that impeachment proceedings will remove Trump from office were and continue to be from low-to-nil. But impeachment has become part of the brand for the resistance to Trump – and will profoundly impact efforts to replace him in 2020, starting with how it influences who Democrats nominate.

How Impeachment Will Impact the Democratic Nomination Contest

For months Democrats have debated how impeachment might help or hurt Democratic candidates – for president and for other offices – next year but very little has been written on how it will almost certainly impact the Democratic presidential primaries on the way to the nominating convention.

There are three Democratic candidates for whom how impeachment proceedings play out will profoundly influence their chances: Elizabeth Warren, Joe Biden and – if Biden’s historical proximity to the Ukrainian epicenter of the political earthquake that follows shatters his perceived “electability” – whichever of the remaining candidates (Harris, Buttigieg, maybe Cory Booker has a bank shot there – or maybe not) might step into the Biden lane may find an opening that has eluded her or him so far.

And, yes, the campaign trail has been unfair toward each of these Democrats at moments. Sexism has haunted Warren, Harris, Amy Klobuchar and has already knocked Kirsten Gillibrand out of the contest. Racism has made it harder for Harris, Booker or Julian Castro to emerge. Smears like “Kamala is a cop” and the “Pocahontas” attacks on Warren continue even though they are as absurd as they are malicious. Biden and Sanders feel like they’re being picked on because of what the latter calls ageism.

You know what? It’s hard to be a candidate! If supporters of any of these folks had expectations it would be easy, they can now reconsider that view. All candidates get hazed. Every one of them knew that going in.

Even worse for all of them: there are still too many candidates cluttering up the stage for mid-tier contestants to gain the elbow room to emerge. Tom Perez’s DNC has done a terrific job in using the debates to winnow the field but it’s still a travesty that also-rans like Tom Steyer and Tulsi Gabbard will get to be distractions on the October 15 debate stage.

When previewing the last debate (Issue #93, September Debate Preview, September 12, 2019), I wrote that if there no breakout moment or major development would occur during the debate, “the beneficiary will be Warren, because she has the only clearly rising trajectory of the field. No change would be good news for her.”

There really wasn’t a full newsletter to be written about that debate because that’s exactly how it went down. Almost three weeks later, does anybody recall a truly memorable moment from it? And since then we have seen Warren continue to rise, and also impeachment, impeachment and more impeachment eclipsing any other opportunities for other candidates to advance.

That will be impeachment’s first big impact on the 2020 Democratic nomination contest: It is the big daily news story that now displaces what would have otherwise been opportunities for mid and low tier candidates to break through the primary narrative.

The other big immediate impact is on Joe Biden. Think the campaign trail has been unfair another candidate? It’s about to get extremely rocky for Biden. Increased GOP noise around Joe Biden’s son Hunter’s business activities in Ukraine has become the Republicans’ go-to response to all-things-impeachment. Donald Trump called Ukraine? Well Joe Biden was once in Ukraine, so there! They paint two very different stories falsely as if they are one and the same crime, their backers gladly latch onto that spin, and suddenly if Donald Trump is going to be on trial they’ll make damn sure Democrats will be, too. And of course, right on cue, Senate Republicans want to open up hearings on, you guessed it, Hillary Clinton’s emails.

The impeachment process is dominated, by Congressional hearings: first, by US House committees, where the Republican minority will get ample airtime to make all kinds of claims on live TV. Did you know that members of Congress are absolutely protected from slander or libel charges for whatever they say in an official proceeding? They can say anything with impunity. That’s the law.

Then, second, if the House votes to impeach, as Speaker Nancy Pelosi now says she has the votes to do, the Republican-controlled US Senate will hold hearings at which they will determine the agenda and the parameters of each. Expect that at both kinds of events Republicans will toss all kinds of red meat at the national TV audiences that impeachment hearings will draw.

This was always going to be one of the downsides of impeachment for Democrats: While it gives a louder microphone to the charges against Trump and his administration, it equally amplifies every defamatory claim Republicans want to make about Democrats, too. And since Ukraine contacts are so central to the impeachment case, Joe Biden is going to have what Trumper Roger Stone said of the DNC’s John Podesta when his emails were hacked and published on Wikileaks: Joe Biden will have his “time in the barrel.”

That could end up inoculating Biden’s path to the nomination – or it could blow it up.

There are two competing theories – each of them plausible – as to how impeachment will play out for Joe Biden’s campaign.

“Biden and his son are stone cold crooked,” Trump railed, red-faced, at today’s White House press conference when asked about his own dealings with Ukraine. This is fast becoming the new “but her emails.”

Now Hunter Biden’s business trips to China and other countries are under renewed scrutiny as well. With or without any smoking gun at all there’s enough razzle dazzle in that for Republicans to confound and confuse the electorate. Impeachment proceedings give that messaging a daily sound truck with which to blast that messaging. It’s going to be a real test both of Joe Biden’s ability to take the heat and also of how much fire his political Teflon can sustain.

Biden Sympathy Theory vs. Biden Vortex Theory

Data wizard Rachel Bitecofer was prescient on the 2018 midterm election results (see Issue #84, Right About 2018, Rachel Bitecofer Tells How Trump Will Be Defeated in 2020, July 7, 2019)…

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