Beyond impeachment: How the hearings might impact the 2020 election

Democratic Speaker Nancy Pelosi confirmed on Thursday the House would move forward on drafting articles of impeachment, but after the first hearing on the subject in the House judiciary committee the previous day, the partisan divide over impeachment seems as firmly entrenched as ever.

'My guess is it's going to be a distant memory,' says one Republican strategist

House judiciary members, including Republican Doug Collins, right, and Democratic committee chairman Jerrold Nadler, heard arguments Wednesday on whether U.S. President Donald Trump's conduct with Ukraine meets the definition of 'high crimes and misdemeanours.' The latest hearing continued the partisan divide that's marked the impeachment process from the start. (Saul Loeb/Reuters)

Democratic Speaker Nancy Pelosi confirmed on Thursday the House would move forward on drafting articles of impeachment, but after the first hearing on the subject in the House judiciary committee the previous day, the partisan divide over impeachment seems as firmly entrenched as ever.

Strategists say it seems more likely than ever that the Democratic-controlled House of Representatives will vote to impeach U.S. President Donald Trump, followed by the Republican-led Senate holding a trial and voting to acquit. 

As Republicans and Democrats questioned four constitutional law scholars about the nature of high crimes and misdemeanours in Wednesday's hearing, neither side seemed to move beyond party lines.

And so attention turns to what happens next — and how impeachment may play a role in the 2020 election. 

Examples are already starting to emerge of how the recent hearings will be weaponized by both sides. A new video from Trump's 2020 re-election campaign has taken an impeachment moment the Democrats had celebrated, turning it on its head.

The moment in question came when Fiona Hill, a Russia expert formerly with the National Security Council, rebuked Republicans for spreading false information that Ukraine interfered in the 2016 election.

During her testimony in November, she called on Republicans to "not promote politically driven falsehoods," which would advance Russian interests.

But the campaign video splices Hill's comments with old news clips of Democrats calling Trump's presidency "illegitimate" — and the insinuation is that Democrats are guilty of the very kind of meddling Hill warned against.

'It's bound to get ugly'

"It's bound to get ugly, even more ugly than it is already," said Jim Manley, a Democratic strategist and former staffer for former senator Ted Kennedy. 

If the Senate acquits Trump — which seems all but certain, given how little movement there's been among Republicans against their president — Manley says Trump will use it to his advantage.

"I expect the president will run against [the impeachment acquittal] and claim vindication," said Manley, who also predicted that videos like the one using Hill's testimony are the leading edge of "an unprecedented level of ugly rhetoric."

And Manley thinks impeachment will maintain a high place in the discussion around the 2020 election. "When the elections occur next year, the president's conduct is going to be issue No. 1, 2 and 3," he said.

Impeachment as a distant memory?

While Trump will get mileage out of saying he was acquitted, Republican strategist Matt Mackowiak says he doesn't think impeachment will rate high in the public consciousness by the time voters head to the ballot box in November 2020.

"My guess is it's going to be a distant memory," said the Texas-based consultant. "If people aren't fired up about impeachment now, why would we believe they'll be fired up about it eight or nine months from now?"

Four legal scholars testified before the House judiciary committee on Wednesday, with all but one saying the president's conduct rose to the level of impeachment. (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)

Having said that, Mackowiak still believes there will be opportunity for Republicans to use the hearings as fodder for attack. The Democrats won a majority in the House in the 2018 midterm elections by focusing on health care and the suburban vote, he notes — and not impeachment. 

"One opportunity Republicans have is to make the case that Democrats took their eye off the ball on using their majority to make people's lives better, and instead focused on trying to remove Trump from office," he said.

Mackowiak said issues like Trump's job approval numbers, the economy, trade with China and the identity of his Democratic opponent will all be bigger factors in the 2020 race.

All about the Bidens

If former vice-president Joe Biden ends up winning the Democratic presidential nomination, then the issues around impeachment could play a more central role, suggests David Faris, a political scientist at Roosevelt University in Chicago.

"If the nominee is Joe Biden, we're going to hear about [his son] Hunter Biden non-stop on Fox News, President Trump will be tweeting about it every day, it'll come up in the debate," he said.

Republicans have previewed some of their election attacks during the impeachment hearings, Faris said, focusing on the lack of a bipartisan vote to authorize the hearings and leaning into the debunked theory that Ukraine — not Russia — interfered in the 2016 election campaign.

U.S. President Donald Trump was in the U.K. on Wednesday for a NATO summit as the House judiciary committee launched its impeachment hearings, taking over from the House intelligence committee, which had largely been focused on gathering evidence. (Evan Vucci/The Associated Press)

While he describes the Republican strategy as morally bankrupt, Faris said it has been effective in holding the line and preventing defections, as well as shoring up the party's base.

"If you're a committed partisan, you want to believe that your side is right," he said. "People need the talking points and they need to hear what it is that they should think."

Not the defining issue

With the Republican Party showing few cracks in solidarity when it comes to impeachment, Mackowiak said how the votes fall among Democrats could cause ripples in 2020.

Two Democrats are already on record as having voted against commencing impeachment proceedings: Rep. Jeff Van Drew, of New Jersey, and Rep. Collin Peterson, of Minnesota.

"A couple months ago, the question was really, 'OK, how many Republicans are going to support this?' Now the operative question really is how many Democrats are going to oppose it?," said Mackowiak.

A member of the public stands in the audience with a shirt reading 'Just Impeach Them All' as the House judiciary committee held its first hearing on Wednesday. (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)

While Democrats can argue they did the right thing under the U.S. Constitution in pushing for impeachment, given the president's behaviour, Faris said he doesn't think that it's going to be a defining issue in 2020.

"There's a certain extent to which they want to stand on principle — and I think the Democrats are a little bit infamous for thinking that standing on principle is going to pay off in political dividends."

While views on impeachment — and the president, more generally — are already baked in with most voters, Manley said there's still a battle to be waged over the small sliver of undecided voters. And while the impeachment result may seem like a foregone conclusion, he believes the process is still worth engaging in.

"I think we've gone past the politics and, given the clear depth and breadth of the president's crimes, the Democrats need to push forward no matter what, and let the chips fall where they may."


Steven D'Souza

Senior Reporter

Steven D'Souza is a Senior Reporter based in Toronto. Previously he was CBC's correspondent in New York covering two U.S. Presidential campaigns and travelling around the U.S. covering everything from protests to natural disasters to mass shootings. He won a Canadian Screen Award for coverage of the protests around the death of George Floyd. He's reported internationally from Rome, Israel and Brazil.


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