Blue Linings Playbook
How to Make the Best of a Giant Political Mistake
On the morning of September 24, I was feverishly typing a short argument on why impeachment is still a dreadful error for Democrats. By the afternoon, the argument was over. Some are still parsing whether Nancy Pelosi’s announcement of the start of an impeachment inquiry is really a dramatic new course, but the upshot is clear – she has bought a one way ticket here.
I still think impeachment is a major mistake, and I provide the most powerful arguments why here. But that is no longer the issue. The issue is, what do Democrats do to make the best of it?
The good news is that there are at least some potential upsides. The major one is that by getting this over with, Democrats could remove a cloud that has been hanging over the party and allow its eventual Presidential nominee and, perhaps most importantly, all of its majority-making swing seat House and Senate members to move on and spend the actual election year talking about winning, middle-class focused issues that are proven to resonate with voters (see 2018). In other words, if this is going to happen, 'twere well it were done quickly. It is also good to remove the impeachment distraction from the Presidential primary process, and there may be Republicans in certain Senate seats who will have a hard time defending specific and potentially untenable Trump actions.
But in order to achieve these benefits and try to limit the major risks and downsides ahead, Democrats need to follow the following four steps.
1. Move Fast: Judiciary Chair Jerrold Nadler has already said he wants to get the entire impeachment process done by year-end. That’s right. Don’t sift papers. Don’t dither. Democrats need to set aggressive deadlines and move. It will be hard though…there are many opportunities for Mitch McConnell skullduggery: for example, he could take advantage of government funding running out on November 21 to force another shutdown, which could drag things out and make it look like Democrats are causing gridlock and dysfunction with their impeachment distraction. The key for Democrats will be to drive forward relentlessly now. Having made the decision to go, go hard.
2. Pick One: Democrats are already worried about flying off in all directions on their message, something they are congenitally prone to and which is extra tricky to avoid in such a target-and detail-rich environment (Donald Trump’s “flood the zone” approach of compounding scandal with scandal is effective for that reason). This is why the Mueller narrative was so outrageously tough for the American public to follow. I’ve long thought that the national security message was the best – and too often overlooked – focus for Democrats because of its relative simplicity and salience. Here’s the summary of it from legal scholar Justin Leavitt: “The Mueller report makes unmistakably clear that Americans were attacked by foreign military units: specifically Russian ‘Military Units 26165 and 74455.’ And it reminds us that the president and members of his campaign invited and welcomed those attacks, even if it did not arrange them.” That’s pretty succinct. Vulnerable Democratic House freshmen are already leaning toward a singular focus on the Ukraine affair under the same general theme. Good move. Unless the story collapses in the next two weeks, that’s probably all Democrats should talk about: Ukraine with a chaser of Russia to highlight the Trump threat to national security. Most important is discipline…for this to work, they have to not talk about any of Trump’s other myriad high crimes and misdemeanors, no matter the temptation.
3. Hang a Lantern on Your Problem Chris Matthews’ classic advice is apt. In this case, Democrats’ problem is the 100% certainty of Senate acquittal in the impeachment trial (some – including me – have speculated that Trump actually wants impeachment not only because it will fire up his base and bring home teetering Republican voters, but also because it will inoculate him on a lot of his baggage after he is acquitted; this is the Admiral Ackbar Theory). So it’s critical that Democrats highlight their problem early and often to frame the issue and set expectations that they can actually meet: they expect acquittal because the Republicans will put party over country, and the true jury is the American people.
4. Pivot Hard and Move On Some may remember that twenty one years ago, during the runup to the Clinton impeachment, MoveOn.org was launched as a messaging effort to urge that “Congress must Immediately Censure President Clinton and Move On to pressing issues facing the country”. That’s the right idea again. Treat impeachment like a censure, and then close the book and start talking full time about health care, the middle class squeeze, preventing a looming recession, and defending the country against Russian aggression and terrorists both foreign and domestic. The news moves fast, and voters’ minds will be on more pressing concerns a year from now. If Democrats finish impeachment in 2019, they have almost a whole year to move on to a winning message.
Impeachment is still likely more bad than good both for Democrats and for our country. But there are degrees here, and if they move with focus and speed, Democrats still have some control over achieving the best version of the path ahead.