Democratic goals in the Impeachment hearings

I must say, Jonathan Bernstein has been indispensable reading when it comes to impeachment.  With the public hearings starting today, he makes some great points:

If Democrats want to actually remove Trump from office, then pushing down his public approval is key. So far, the Ukraine scandal hasn’t really done that. According to the FiveThirtyEight estimate, the president’s approval rating is now at 41.1%, down about a percentage point from when the story broke in September. That’s a very weak number, to be sure; Trump ranks 10th of 11 polling-era presidents after 1,027 days in office, and his disapproval number is now up to 54.6%.

But bad as that is, it’s probably not enough to make the party abandon Trump out of electoral self-interest. At 41%, he’s still not a lost cause. Perhaps the polls are off, or maybe he’ll still improve a bit before the election. He might even win without getting 50% support. But if Trump were to slip back to match the lowest point of his presidency, when only about 37% of the public approved of how he was doing his job? Then Republicans might start to wonder if the risks of sticking with him outweighed the risks of removing him.

That suggests Democrats will want to do two things in these hearings: Make them interesting enough that the news media continues to cover the story, and focus on what Trump did and why it was bad, rather than on impeachment as the remedy…

The first part is obvious: The only way any story affects public opinion is if the media covers it, and saturation coverage is what signals to voters that this is a really important story. As for the second part, simply establishing the facts and why they tell a story of malfeasance should be a much easier sell to the public and to the president’s own party. We’ve already seen Republican politicians express discomfort or even outright criticism of Trump’s conduct in this scandal. But none of them has yet said that Trump should be impeached and removed for it, and House Republicans voted unanimously against even setting up the impeachment inquiry.

In other words, saying that Trump did something wrong splits the Republican Party, while saying he should be impeached and removed for it unites them in opposition (at least for now). The way to change that dynamic isn’t by making a logical argument from the facts to impeachment; it’s to push for agreement that Trump’s behavior was appalling, which would then lead to worse numbers in the polls, which would in turn make Republicans in Congress more willing to remove him.

Among other things, this means the media needs to get things right.  Alas, that doesn’t give me a lot of confidence.

About Steve Greene
Professor of Political Science at NC State

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