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Opinion What moderate Democrats don’t get about impeachment — and 2020

President Trump at the White House on Monday. (Evan Vucci/AP)

When the idea of censuring President Trump instead of impeaching him has been brought up in recent days, it has almost exclusively been to suggest that Republicans might admit that pressuring a foreign government to help attack a political rival is less than “perfect” — if it were in the context of a toothless congressional measure. Terrified of saying a critical word about the president, Republicans have rejected it out of hand.

But now, some House Democrats are raising the idea for their own purposes.

It’s a terribly misconceived idea, not only because Trump absolutely deserves to be impeached on the merits, but also because the moderate Democrats seem to be fundamentally misunderstanding the politics at work. From Politico:

A small group of vulnerable House Democrats is floating the longshot idea of censuring President Donald Trump instead of impeaching him, according to multiple lawmakers familiar with the conversations.
Those Democrats, all representing districts that Trump won in 2016, huddled on Monday afternoon in an 11th-hour bid to weigh additional — though unlikely — options to punish the president for his role in the Ukraine scandal as the House speeds toward an impeachment vote next week.

“I think it’s certainly appropriate and might be a little more bipartisan, who knows,” said Rep. Kurt Schrader (D-Ore.), apparently laboring under the delusion that any more than one or two Republicans would vote even for censure.

Just to be clear, these moderate Democrats aren’t suggesting censure because they sincerely believe that Trump’s misdeeds were kind of bad but don’t merit impeachment. They’re doing it out of self-preservation, in the belief that they can find some sort of needle to thread on impeachment that will satisfy Democratic voters in their districts but not alienate Republican voters.

But they can’t. And their best chance at reelection is to understand that.

The reason is that congressional politics has become intensely nationalized. Former House speaker Thomas P. “Tip” O’Neill used to say that "all politics is local,” and it was true then, but it no longer is. There is less and less room for individual members of Congress to create identities that significantly diverge from their party’s identity.

There are many reasons for this, but one of the biggest is the change in media: When your constituents got their news primarily from local newspapers and radio, you could use those outlets to create a unique presence. Now, they get their news from national, often partisan media that constantly reinforce party loyalties.

So when they go to the voting booth to decide whether to reelect Congressman Smith, they may be asking themselves not so much “Do I like Congressman Smith?” but rather, “Do I want Democrats or Republicans to control Congress?” Which is probably the more rational question.

As a result, results in congressional elections have come to mirror those in presidential elections. As Emory University political scientist Alan Abramowitz has noted — through the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s — the correlation between districts’ vote for Congress and vote for president ran around 0.6 on a /0-to-1 scale, which means they were closely related, but there was still plenty of variation. There were lots of districts that voted Republican for president but had a Democratic representative, and vice versa.

In 2016, the correlation between congressional results and presidential results was an incredible 0.97. There was a bit of variation, some of which crossed that 50 percent line (i.e., Hillary Clinton got only 49 percent while the Democratic candidate for Congress got 51 percent), but the differences were minuscule.

What does that tell us about impeachment and the 2020 election? If you’re a Democrat representing a swing district, what will make it more likely for you to be reelected is not for there to be some split-the-difference solution to impeachment that you can vote for. The best thing for your reelection is for Trump to be as unpopular as possible.

We can speculate about whether impeachment will or won’t contribute to that, but Trump being soundly defeated is the one thing that will make Democrats in these districts getting reelected more likely.

There is no middle ground that moderate Democrats can find on impeachment that will please everyone in their districts. But I suspect they’re suffering from a common misconception: that if you come from a swing district, it means your district is populated by moderate voters who look for moderate solutions on everything — including impeachment.

But that’s almost never true. More likely, yours is a swing district because it’s made up of roughly equal numbers of Republicans and Democrats, most of whom feel just as strongly about Trump (pro or con) as voters anywhere.

Yes, there are limits to how far a Democrat can go ideologically and win in a swing district. But in 2020, you aren’t going to win by being as moderate as you can be. You’re going to win if Trump loses.

Read more:

Kathleen Parker: Trump will survive impeachment — and be stronger for it

David Von Drehle: Trump isn’t afraid of his scarlet ‘I.’ Why should he be?

Max Boot: The Do Something Democrats show they can legislate even while they impeach

Greg Sargent: As Democrats unveil impeachment articles, Trump signals corruption will continue