Something strange is going on with the Democratic presidential candidates and the impeachment of Donald Trump. All the candidates support Trump’s impeachment. But none of them want to talk about it.
At a recent event in Las Vegas, Bernie Sanders said that Trump “will be impeached, and he should be impeached.” But he quickly added that his own campaign is about “more than just defeating” the Republican president.
When California Senator Kamala Harris was asked recently if she was following the impeachment hearings, she replied “not so much”. “I’ve been in Iowa,” she explained. As Politico put it, for the Democratic candidates, “it’s as if the unfolding [impeachment] saga hardly exists.”
Why is there this disconnect between the Presidential candidates and the impeachment process?
One of the reasons is that impeachment is a matter for Congress to resolve. It is not something that is decided by the presidential candidates. Those politicians who are running to become the Democratic nominee are focussed on winning the vote in the early primary states – Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina – and not on what’s happening in Washington, D.C
And while polls show that a majority of Americans now support impeachment, it’s not necessarily a vote winner for the Democrats. Though popular, the impeachment of Trump, like the earlier attempts to impeach Nixon and Clinton, has not brought people out into the streets. Americans have gotten angry and staged massive protests over issues like women’s rights, gun control and climate change. But they have left impeachment in the hands of the politicians in Washington.
For Sanders in particular, while he understands that Trump is corrupt and deserves to be removed from office, he believes that the real fight is against Trumpism, against the reactionary politics of the white supremacist far right that Trump leads. It is not enough to remove Trump from office. His movement must be completely defeated politically as well.
When asked how central impeachment was to his campaign, Sanders answered: “Sadly, we have a President who is not only a pathological liar, he is likely the most corrupt President in the modern history of America.” But the Vermont Senator also warned that being “consumed” by Trump meant losing the election.
In a strange twist that few foresaw, many of the Democratic candidates, Sanders included, will face a real problem when the Senate trial of Trump begins in early 2020.
Six of the Democratic candidates are Senators, and all of them are expected to attend the trial of Trump, and not only to be there to vote on the verdict at the end.
This will mean staying in Washington rather than being out campaigning in the early primary states. Some leading candidates like Biden and Buttigieg will be able to continue their campaigns as they’re not Senators – but key players like Sanders, Warren and Harris will find themselves stuck in Washington rather than out in the field, possibly for several weeks, during the decisive period in the run-up to the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary, on the 3rd and 11th of February.
When asked how his campaign would cope with this, Sanders replied: “I don’t know how you prepare for that … We will do our best to get back to Iowa, to get to New Hampshire, to get to all of the states that we have to, but there’s no question it will make our life a little bit more difficult.”
What the candidates have not been saying – though all are certainly thinking – is that Trump appears highly likely to be acquitted by the Republican-controlled Senate. So while Sanders and the others will find themselves obligated to take their seats in the Senate chamber during his trial, rather than campaigning to win the party’s nomination, they will be participating in what is almost certainly a futile exercise.