Opinion

Think impeachment has been a self-defeating crusade for Democrats? Think again

Ukraine call may be old news, but don’t discount its moral power in a trial

The punditocracy may say that Nancy Pelosi and the Democrats have overplayed their hands on impeachment, but the latest Iowa Poll pokes holes in that argument, Shapiro writes. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

[OPINION] DES MOINES, Iowa — The recently unveiled Des Moines Register/CNN/Mediacom Iowa Poll is considered the gold standard for deciphering the opening-gun Feb. 3 Democratic caucuses. But a polling question asked of a sample of the entire Iowa electorate may be more important for understanding the upcoming impeachment trial.

The question never mentioned the words “Donald Trump.” Instead, it asked registered Iowa voters, “Do you think it is OK or not OK for a U.S. presidential candidate to try to gain political advantage over an election rival by seeking help from foreign countries?”

At a time of intense partisan divisions over everything, it is difficult to locate fleeting examples of consensus. Even asking about the weather (traditionally considered the safest topic in polite conversation) now is likely to provoke a bitter fight over global warming.

But the Iowa Poll answers on digging for political dirt with the help of foreign countries were unequivocal. By a lopsided 7-to-1 margin, Iowa voters said that it was wrong. Even 59 percent of Republicans and 56 percent of Trump voters viewed such behavior as morally suspect.

Remember that Iowa is not one of those coastal states where elite voters sip tea with raised pinkies and ridicule Trump. Disproportionately white and hemorrhaging college graduates in quest of better jobs, Iowa went for Trump in 2016 by a 10-point margin. This was an epic turnabout in a state that twice backed both Barack Obama and Bill Clinton.

When asked directly about impeachment, Iowa voters were evenly split (given the margin of error), with 43 percent approving the House action and 45 percent disapproving. In short, when you pose a direct impeachment question, everything defaults to standard political divisions.

A losing issue?

All this brings us to the current political orthodoxy that says impeachment has been a self-defeating crusade for the Democrats.

With Mitch McConnell holding firm against witnesses during the Senate trial (and Susan Collins displaying her traditionally ineffectual “concerns”), the standard verdict is that Nancy Pelosi lost whatever scant momentum the Democrats possessed by delaying sending over the articles of impeachment.

Now, in the judgment of much of the pundit parade, the only solution is to get everything over with fast since the outcome is preordained.

Sure, the TV talking heads argue, the Democrats may force vulnerable GOP senators to cast a few potentially embarrassing votes on witnesses. But, like as not, apart from the scarlet “I” on Trump’s permanent presidential record, the entire charade will be mostly forgotten by November.

But the Iowa Poll pokes holes in the conventional wisdom.

Because the formality of a trial makes great political theater with Chief Justice John Roberts presiding, it is likely that viewership will extend far beyond C-SPAN devotees. And if there is one argument that the Democratic impeachment managers will make again and again, it is that Trump pressured Ukraine to investigate Joe Biden and his son Hunter.

Back to basics

You don’t need new witnesses to prove this case, though. It is all in the summary of Trump’s July 25 call to Ukrainian President Volodymr Zelenskiy. In the unending quest for a “smoking gun,” it is easy to forget how everything started.

There in a White House-released document is Trump saying, “I would like you to do us a favor, though.” Then a few minutes later, Trump adds in characteristically mangled syntax, “There’s a lot of talk about Biden’s son, that … [Joe] Biden went around bragging that he stopped the prosecution so if you can look into it … it sounds horrible to me.”

Trump’s defense team in the trial will undoubtedly parse words and repeat the mantra “No quid pro quo.” Some Republican senators with a dollop of honesty will admit that Trump displayed faulty judgment. But they also will take refuge in the position that since Ukraine ultimately got the $391 million in military aid (admittedly, after the whistleblower’s complaint made the media), the matter does not rise to the level of removing a president.

But the transcript, combined with the witnesses before the House Intelligence Committee who defied Trump’s gag order, does add up to a convincing case that Trump was using Ukraine to help reelect himself as president.

Sure, once this point is hammered home in the trial, a certain percentage of Iowa Republicans will decide that it is fine to shake down a foreign country — as long as it hurts Joe Biden. And a certain percentage will come to the conclusion that anything Trump does is, by definition, heaven-sent.

But not all the 56 percent of Trump voters in Iowa who think, in the abstract, that this conduct is wrong will suddenly become devotees of situational ethics. Some will be stricken with a few qualms about how Trump is conducting himself as president.

Equally important, Iowa Sen. Joni Ernst, who is facing a competitive reelection this fall, will be in the position of defending Trump’s attempt to blackmail Ukraine into yielding dirt on Biden.

It is one thing to be Trump’s enabler on routine Senate matters or to ignore his inflammatory tweets. It is another to embrace wrongful conduct in only the third Senate presidential impeachment trial in history.

Ultimately, the Democrats’ strongest argument is not over procedural points on the testimony of witnesses. Though I will admit I would love to find out if John Bolton believes that revenge is a dish best served cold.

What matters, in the end, is the July 25 phone call that so provoked the original whistleblower. And just because it’s old news doesn’t diminish its moral power in an impeachment trial.

Walter Shapiro has covered the last 10 presidential campaigns. He is also a fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU and a lecturer in political science at Yale. Follow him on Twitter @MrWalterShapiro.

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