Call this the Unified Theory of Politics, at least in the Trump era. The Wall Street Journal’s Gerald Seib wonders why Donald Trump seems to be baiting Democrats into starting impeachment proceedings. He concludes that impeachment might be the easiest way for Trump to win a second term, especially since he and his campaign don’t appear to be doing much to expand their electoral footprint:
One of the mysteries of the president’s political calculus remains why he exerts almost no effort trying to expand that base, which is a minority of the country and, it would seem, simply not enough to give him a re-election victory in 2020. Perhaps, though, the calculation is that his voters will care a lot more about stopping any impeachment effort than Democratic voters will care about pursuing one.
If that’s the case, the intensity edge will be on his side in an impeachment fight, and that will translate into a similar advantage in the 2020 presidential election. And perhaps, in a close election, intensity can overcome the raw numbers.
Seib isn’t the only person looking at the outlines of base election and wondering how Trump plans to pull out a win in 18 months. “It’s easy to run as a challenger,” Joe Scarborough remarked earlier on Morning Joe, which is demonstrably untrue, although off the point a bit here. Incumbents win re-election to Congress at a rate of 85-90%, and it’s somewhat rare for an incumbent president to lose a bid for a second term.
However, Scarborough’s correct that re-elect numbers in the low 30s is one of those rarer environments where it’s relatively easy to be a challenger:
.@JoeNBC: "Everybody in the mainstream media, because they miss it the first time, thinks that Donald Trump has some magic voodoo spell that he's going to sprinkle in the last days of the campaign … Presidents do not get reelected with 31% reelects." pic.twitter.com/34faaBEKBH
— MSNBC (@MSNBC) April 30, 2019
It’s a wee bit early for those polls, given that the nearest Democratic debate is still almost two months away and Americans like to gripe a lot before taking elections seriously. Recent head-to-head polling aggregated by RealClearPolitics suggests that Trump’s a lot closer to winning than the 31% re-elect figure when it comes down to an actual choice. Joe Biden leads Trump in national surveys, but not overwhelmingly so, and Trump leads some other Democrats in them, again not overwhelmingly. With another 18 months to go, some of those “definitely not” voters may well cast votes for Trump based on their dislike of his opponent, which was the exact dynamic that took place in 2016.
That dynamic would get amplified in an impeachment push, Seib argues, which is why Trump might be angling for that fight. It would also prevent Democrats from achieving any of their agenda, leaving them nothing but a pointless impeachment fight for their two years in the House majority:
In such a scenario, Mr. Trump would have the opportunity to offer to his base—and for the president, it’s all about that base—the ultimate proof of the ultimate conspiracy theory: That the whole investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 presidential elections was, from the beginning, a pretense to bring him down. …
That thought leads to the broader, underlying risk for Democrats if they pursue impeachment: What if average voters just don’t care as much about the Russian interference/Mueller investigation saga as do Democratic party activists and the political intelligentsia in Washington? What if they think the fight is just too damaging to the country?
Moreover, if Washington’s conversation becomes all about impeachment, nothing else will get done. By the 2020 election, Democrats would have fewer substantive accomplishments to tout after two years in control of the House. Meanwhile, it appears Mr. Trump will have a solid economy to tout.
Basically, this comes down to the briar-patch strategy, assuming Trump wants to run that risk and is that strategically adept. It’s become clear that even Democratic voters have tired of all the Russia-collusion nonsense and want to get back to business. Support for impeachment is now running at two-year lows, a rational reaction to the revelation that Trump didn’t win in a corrupt election but instead managed to edge out a historically terrible candidate.
Pushing impeachment at this stage would make the 2020 election all about “presidential harassment,” as Trump likes to call it. That could divide the electorate differently than what we’d traditionally see in presidential cycles, especially if the Democratic nominee was on the record for impeaching Trump rather than just running against him. It would force Democrats to run on the basis of being anti-Trump alone at a time where anti-Trump fatigue seems to be increasing.
Still, this all seems a little too “eight-dimensional chess” to be a strategy for offense. If Democrats insist on pursuing impeachment — or even going all-in on court battles to make the Mueller probe interminable — Trump will certainly fight back along these lines, but it’s tough to imagine any president encouraging impeachment just to benefit off the backlash. And the truth is that Democrats probably won’t get baited into doing that because they won’t need to be baited into it, despite efforts by Nancy Pelosi to change the subject. We may end up there whether anyone tosses anyone else into a briar patch or not.