Analysis

Why Impeachment Is Failing—and Trump May Win in 2020

The evidence that Trump abused his office in Ukraine is overwhelming. But a flailing Democratic Party shows he is lucky in his adversaries.

Sen. Elizabeth Warren speaks as former Vice President Joe Biden listens
Sen. Elizabeth Warren speaks as former Vice President Joe Biden listens during the Democratic presidential debate in Atlanta on Nov. 20. Alex Wong/Getty Images

If you want a sense of what will happen over the next 11 months until Election Day 2020, listen first to Will Hurd, the former CIA officer who has been one of the most moderate House Republicans and now sits on the Democrat-led Intelligence Committee that heard devastating testimony against U.S. President Donald Trump all week.

Hurd, who announced last summer that he is giving up his Texas seat after this term—and thus has even less fear of Trump than he did before—has repeatedly shown himself willing to call out the president for his atrocious behavior. Over the summer, Hurd was one of only four Republicans who voted to condemn Trump’s racist comments about four Democratic representatives who were women of color. (Trump had told them to go “back” to where they came from.) And this week, Hurd criticized Trump’s notorious July 25 phone call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky as “inappropriate” and “misguided foreign policy.” It was his genteel way of saying that Trump had demonstrably sought to interject his personal political interests into U.S. foreign policy, in the process jeopardizing the security of a friendly nation threatened by Russia.

But was that, by itself, impeachable behavior? Uh uh, not quite there, Hurd said. “An impeachable offense should be compelling, overwhelmingly clear, and unambiguous,” he said, adding, “I have not heard evidence proving the president committed bribery or extortion.”

There you have a pretty good leading indicator of how things are likely to play out over the next 11 months. Democratic leaders in the House, having crossed the Rubicon with hearings that all but obligate them to vote to impeach in the next few weeks, will fail spectacularly in the Senate, since they apparently have won over no Republicans at all. “Our assessment,” wrote Politico Playbook’s Capitol Hill pulse-takers, Jake Sherman and Anna Palmer, “remains that this has not moved a single vote in the House of Representatives. In fact, Republicans believe a few Democrats will vote with them against impeachment—although that might be wishful thinking.” If no House Republicans stand up, very few if any Senate Republicans will dare. Indeed, in a Republican-dominated Senate, it would require all the more courage to break ranks on such a huge and consequential issue as removing a president for the first time in U.S. history. 

That means a big victory for the president going into an election year. And no one has mastered the art of the gloat like Donald Trump, who on Friday morning declared in a call-in to Fox & Friends: “Frankly, I want a trial.” Indeed, why not? What better way would there be of continuing to smear Trump’s leading 2020 Democratic threat, Joe Biden, along with his son Hunter—who was clearly pushing ethical boundaries, even many Democrats admit, by joining the board of a Ukrainian firm while his father was vice president—as the election draws closer? Especially because Trump knows he’s assured of exoneration in the Senate.

The news landed as the leading Democratic candidates in the 2020 presidential race clawed at one another once again in their fifth debate on Wednesday night. Just two months before the critical Feb. 3 Iowa caucuses, there is no reasonable clearing of the field in sight. At the debate, the rising (and, in some places, leading) Democratic contender, Pete Buttigieg, escaped all but unassailed while Biden—probably still the most electable Democrat at the moment—continued to bleed from a thousand rhetorical cuts, many of them self-inflicted.

In a performance that was fairly typical for him, the 76-year-old Biden often had trouble finding his way out of his own sentences, with new ones rising like uncertain phoenixes out of half-finished ones, and he made several unforced errors. Speaking of domestic violence, he talked awkwardly of the need to “keep punching at it. And punching at it. And punching at it.” Biden also claimed—in a bumbling bid for black voters—to have gained the support of the “only” black woman elected to the U.S. Senate. Biden meant Illinois’s retired Sen. Carol Moseley Braun, except that he forgot that his rival Sen. Kamala Harris, the daughter of an Indian mother and black father, was on stage with him. “That’s not true. The other one is here,” Harris cracked. 

“I said ‘first,’” Biden retorted, although he had not done so, adding to the growing bill of malapropistic particulars that have made leading party figures doubt whether he can rise up finally to beat Trump, or even win the nomination. 

So here is where we find ourselves. The elder statesman of the Democratic Party—a man whose experience and record of accomplishment in office are unmatched by anybody in the race—can’t seem to find his footing, as Biden’s slow but steady slippage in key state polls indicates. And arguably the most impressive rising star in the party, Buttigieg, is a small-town mayor who is married to another man and, surveys suggest, would face a very tough challenge being elected president because of that fact. According to a Politico/Morning Consult poll from late October, while half of U.S. registered voters say they are ready for a gay president, only 40 percent say they think the country is.

So that leaves who? Another leading contender in the polls, Sen. Elizabeth Warren, has also shown impressive growth as a candidate but, despite some new tempering of her big-spending Medicare for All plan, is still seen by many Democrats and independents as far too liberal—and perfect fodder for the Republican 2020 strategy of painting the Democrats as socialists. Her adjusted proposal for Medicare for All, a two-year transition plan, has been roundly criticized as disingenuous or hypocritical. Meanwhile Bernie Sanders, who appears increasingly bug-eyed and strident on stage as he fades just behind Warren in the polls, is mostly a caricature of his 2016 self and almost certainly will not secure the nomination, though he can do a lot of damage to whoever does.

Earlier this month, a poll by the New York Times and Siena College showed that Trump, despite overall low approval ratings, remains strong in six key swing states he won in 2016. This should alarm Democrats. Warren fares worse against Trump in those states than Biden or even Sanders. The Times’ electoral guru, Nate Cohn, who directed the survey, said the new numbers indicate Trump may have an even greater advantage in the Electoral College in 2020 than he did in 2016. The president, in other words, could lose the popular vote this time by an even wider margin and still be reelected. 

It’s not too much to say the Democratic establishment is close to panic over all these developments. That’s one reason why, despite the pushback he’s getting, former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg appears closer to edging his way into the race, launching a $30 million ad campaign. Even 2016 Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton, who until now hasn’t hinted she’s interested in running again, contends she is “under enormous pressure from many, many, many people” to consider it.

It’s been quite a week, one in which the 45th president of the United States was shown to be abusing his power beyond any reasonable doubt. But despite the mass of evidence against him and his performance in office, Trump may be proving lucky in his adversaries.

Michael Hirsh is a senior correspondent and deputy news editor at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @michaelphirsh

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