Congress returns this week after their Esther recess and—and especially the Democrats—ought to feel an even more energized environment on Capitol Hill. After two years of investigations the Mueller report has been released and after months of waffling, Joe Biden has decided to throw his hat into the ring for the presidential nomination. The stakes for the nation as well as the Democratic Party are dramatic, but while some things are obvious many are more subtle than appear on the surface.
The future of the country may well hinge on whether any Democrat will be able to mount a successful campaign against President Trump in 2020. For the Democratic Party the challenge is whether they want to win the presidency in November 2020 or whether they want to spend the next eighteen feeling very self-righteous about their party’s values and goals and then fail to win the White House. Will their programmatic ideas overwhelm an effort to put country and party ahead of self?
Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s job—phase one is over. He submitted his report and now the political and institutional battle over the report’s conclusions will play out in halls of Congress, in the media, and in the Courts. Thoughts of a serious move to impeach the President ought to be dismissed. While a case for presidential commitment of “high crimes and misdemeanors” can easily be made, the Democrats need to avoid a show that will lose and alienate segments of the American people. Hard though it might be for the more progressive wing of the party to accept, the Democrats will lose far more than they will gain politically if the proceed with impeachment at this time.
On the other hand, they could conceivably pursue active investigations of the President and his Administrations activities. Their hope would be that some Republican Members in the Senate will hear sufficient pressure at home that they will begin to waffle on the matter of presidential accountability. If pressure were to begin to grow and produce results in Congress and in the Courts, then the options might change.
Politically speaking for the Democrats, a contested nominating process is not inherently unhealthy for the nation or the party. After some debates and character testing, plus the political fund-raising making its mark, the Democrats need to rally around a winner. Joe Biden may or may not be their answer, but he could drive the discussion away from the extremes. To incorporate large goals and themes is not a danger for the party, but not when it drives the public away from the Democrats. Scaring voters will not even produce a Pyrrhic victory.
Specific numbers will be clearer as time goes on, but Trump knows that he has a base of 40-45% of whom 35% are rock solid. To win in 2020, as he did in 2016, the President needs to attract disaffected and alienated Democrats and Independents. This Trump believes he will achieve if the Democrats self-destruct in Congress; conduct an extended and polarizing primary campaign; do not coalesce behind a single candidate at an early point in the campaign; and/or the Democratic primary process results in a strongly dissatisfied wing of the party which opts to support a third-party candidate. Such a scenario would most likely produce a victorious plurality for Trump.
There is an additional related dilemma which ought to be the driving force in the Democratic Party’s election game plan. Given the conduct of the Republican Party towards judicial nominees, especially Merrick Garland’s nomination to the Supreme Court, the Democrats need to recognize that they must retake the Senate in 2020 if they have any hope to rebalance the dramatic generational judicial shifts that have occurred since Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell abused the entire judicial nominating process. Even if a Democrat is elected as President in 2020, filling any judicial vacancy will rest in the hands of the Senate.
Considering the criticalness of these issues it is crucial that the Democrats not permit the nominating circus to extend for too long once the debates begin this June. If they fail to recognize the irreparable damage that might occur to the nation and the American people with a Trump re-election, the Democrats will bear at least partial responsibility for an even more unpredictable Trump second term.