The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion The key impeachment verdict is in. And no, it didn’t come from the Senate.

President Trump and Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaidó at the White House on Wednesday. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

If, next January, Donald Trump takes the presidential oath for a second time — an unwelcome prospect to me — his road to reelection will have started in these busy, perhaps fateful, few days of early February, when Trump’s audacious flair for self-promotion converged with the bumbling of Democrats to produce an explosive campaign launch.

There was the verdict on impeachment. No, not the Senate’s verdict, which was as predictable as tomorrow’s sunrise — especially after House Democrats made the disastrous decision to halt their investigation and present a gapingly incomplete record to unwelcoming Senate Republicans. There was just no time to seek court orders for further evidence, the Democrats urgently explained. And then they frittered away a whole month before presenting their articles of impeachment.

Impeachment trial live updates

The key verdict is the one rendered by the court of public opinion. According to the venerable Gallup Organization, Trump’s approval rating was a dismal 39 percent around the time news broke of his shady dealings with Ukraine. The last president below 40 percent at that point in his first term was Jimmy Carter, who was bounced after one term. By the end of the impeachment debacle, though, Trump was at 49 percent — the highest level of his presidency so far and at least three points higher than President Barack Obama could claim in early February of his reelection year.

Pundits and reporters who lament this erosion in decorum are wildly missing the point, says Post opinion writer Greg Sargent. (Video: The Washington Post, Photo: Toni L. Sandys/The Washington Post)

Some on the left have talked about impeaching Trump again. You have to wonder if they’re secretly on his payroll.

Onto this smoldering rubble the Iowa Democratic Party tossed a gasoline bomb. Their shocking inability to tabulate the results of Monday’s caucuses — nearly 48 hours after the voting, only 75 percent of the precincts were in — blew a giant hole in the party’s claims to hyper-competence. Swing voters might be susceptible to the message that a party unable to count votes in Keokuk should not be encouraged to redesign the entire economy.

When, eventually, the votes are counted, Democrats should be chagrined by the mediocre turnout. All those candidates spending all those millions, all the field offices and paid staff, and all the talk about anti-Trump energy produced only the usual attendance on caucus day.

What happened in Iowa? Analyze the results with Post Opinions columnists.

Then there’s Trump.

His State of the Union speech was a lethally effective exploitation of the presidential bully pulpit. Did he overstate his accomplishments? Yes. Did he understate the record of his predecessor? Yes. Is that unusual in a campaign-year State of the Union? No.

But no previous address so cunningly adapted the ancient ritual of a formal speech to the visceral medium of television. A former TV star himself, Trump understands that people don’t just listen to what the president says. They also watch the reactions of the people in the room. He engineered the speech to force his opponents to react in potentially self-defeating ways.

Some examples. Rather than give the usual conservative lip service to school choice, Trump illustrated the issue by introducing a young African American girl in the gallery and announcing that she was getting a scholarship to attend her preferred school. What would House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) and her fellow Democrats do, applaud for the happy child and risk offending their public-school-teacher base or sit on their hands and look like a bunch of Scrooges?

Rather than deliver the Republican boilerplate on abortion, Trump introduced a pro-life mom and her 2-year-old daughter, who was born barely halfway to term. Advances in extreme neonatology kept her alive. How would Democrats react to this cute little darling whose existence blurs the distinction between life in and out of the womb?

Rather than poke the usual verbiage at the wing of the Democratic Party that embraces the label of “democratic socialism,” Trump introduced Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaidó, whose quest to unseat his country’s socialist government had the entire Congress on its bipartisan feet. Now Democrats are left to explain why ousting socialists is good policy for Venezuela while electing them — the democratic variety, anyway — is right for the United States.

Viewers were left to wonder: Why wouldn’t Pelosi applaud money for historically black colleges and universities? What’s her beef with a serviceman who returns from deployment to hug his kids? Where’s her feeling for the brother of a man killed by an undocumented criminal? All of these visuals could be explained in policy terms, but as Ronald Reagan once confided to his diary, “If you’re explaining, you’re losing.”

I won’t be surprised if the next Gallup poll finds a Trump bump from the confluence of these events. If so, he’ll be in positive territory for the first time — a position of relative strength for which Democrats will share a large part of the blame. They misjudged impeachment, mismanaged Iowa and unwittingly co-starred in a Trump infomercial.

The great mistake of 2016 was to underestimate Trump as an innovative campaign force. Time is running out to avoid a repeat.

Read more from David Von Drehle’s archive.

Read more:

Read a letter in response to this piece: Moving on from impeachment

Max Boot: Was impeachment worth it?

Kathleen Parker: Trump might be the luckiest president to ever hold office

Alyssa Rosenberg: Trump’s address proved he is a genius entertainer. Democrats ought to worry.

Eugene Robinson: Trump used the State of the Union speech to trumpet his own primacy

Henry Olsen: ​​We’ve seen this Trump before. It’s never lasted long.

Jennifer Rubin: Iowa Democrats just made the caucus debacle worse

The latest commentary on the Trump impeachment

Looking for more Trump impeachment coverage following the president’s acquittal?

See Dana Milbank’s Impeachment Diary: Find all the entries in our columnist’s feature.

Get the latest: See complete Opinions coverage from columnists, editorial cartoonists and the Editorial Board.

Read the most recent take from the Editorial Board: It’s not over. Congress must continue to hold Trump accountable.

The House impeachment managers weigh in in an op-ed: Trump won’t be vindicated. The Senate won’t be, either.

Stay informed: Read the latest reporting and analysis on impeachment from the Post newsroom.

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