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Opinion writer

Can impeachment save Republicans in November? Would Democrats be crazy to talk about it when things are already looking so good for them?

Some people on both sides seem to think so. But the question may be more complicated than it appears. Jonathan Martin of the New York Times reports:

What began last year as blaring political hyperbole on the right — the stuff of bold-lettered direct mail fund-raising pitches from little-known groups warning of a looming American “coup” — is now steadily drifting into the main currents of the 2018 message for Republicans.

The appeals have become a surefire way for candidates to raise small contributions from grass-roots conservatives who are devoted to Mr. Trump, veteran Republican fund-raisers say. But party strategists also believe that floating the possibility of impeachment can also act as a sort of scared-straight motivational tool for turnout.

Part of this is coming from the right’s eternal grift machine, a vast collection of political snake oil salesmen who bombard gullible conservatives with endless “emergency” fundraising appeals, telling them that they need to send $10 or $20 or $100 to forestall some urgent threat, when in fact the money is just going to consultants and other con artists. Impeachment is a perfect issue for them, because to your average Fox News watcher/Newsmax reader it sounds like a looming catastrophe, so why not give your credit card number to somebody who says they’ll stop it by … well, by doing something or other, which they never actually explain.

On the other hand, impeachment is a genuine possibility. The Senate will never muster the two-thirds majority necessary to convict the president no matter what he is proven to have done. But you only need a simple majority in the House to impeach. So it’s certainly conceivable if Democrats take over that body.

The question of whether Democrats should campaign on this, however, has divided the party.

Some Democrats believe we should be seriously talking up impeachment right now, none more so than billionaire donor Tom Steyer, who has devoted considerable resources to promoting the idea. Other Democrats, like former Obama aide David Axelrod, have been frantically warning that it’s a terrible mistake to even talk about it. Nancy Pelosi has been discouraging Democrats from bringing it up.

Folks like Axelrod appear partly motivated by the usual Democratic desire to seem like the grownups in the room, the theory being that when voters are presented with a choice between extremist Republicans and calm, reasonable Democrats, they’ll choose the latter. That makes a certain amount of intuitive sense. But it’s also easy to come up with plenty of examples in which Democrats made sure to stay reasonable and got no political benefit from it. That kind of thinking is what produces presidential nominees like Hillary Clinton, John Kerry, and Al Gore: experienced, knowledgeable, sober public servants who may not excel in the charisma department but would make fine presidents if given the chance. There were also many Democrats who thought that the public would turn away from the lunacy of the Tea Party in the elections of 2010 and 2014, which didn’t happen either.

Still, even if you believe that the most important thing for Democrats in November is not appealing to the middle but motivating their own voters — which I do — it doesn’t follow that candidates promoting impeachment is the best way to accomplish that goal.

One thing we’ve seen in the post-2016 elections is that the things that motivate voters and the things candidates spend their time talking about don’t necessarily need to be the same. Democrats winning all these state legislative races are benefiting from an enormously energized base, which translates into volunteers and supercharged voter turnout. But many of these candidates haven’t been breathing fire about the president. They have spent most of their time talking about local and state issues.

In other words, candidates can capitalize on their base’s anger without coming out every day and telling people to be angry. Someone like Steyer can beat the drums for impeachment, energizing a portion of the Democratic base and pushing back against efforts to normalize Trump’s behavior, while candidates spend their time talking about other issues for which there may be more direct policy solutions. In theory, the Democratic candidates can then get the best of both worlds, benefiting from a base motivated by their outrage at Trump while still appealing to a broad swath of voters.

I’m still undecided about whether what we already know about Trump’s actions warrants impeachment, although you can make a good case for it. If I were running for office, the answer I’d give to the impeachment question would be “Maybe.” If Democrats do take over, we will be guaranteed something we haven’t yet seen: an aggressive, comprehensive investigation into the Russia scandal, not to mention other misdeeds the president and his administration may have committed. Once that full story is known, and once Robert Mueller finishes his work, we’ll be able to look at the whole picture and decide what to do about it.

Impeachment might well end up being the best response. But until Democrats control Congress, we probably don’t need Dem candidates out their pushing the idea.