The saga of Donald Trump’s impeachment, which ended earlier this month with his long-predicted acquittal in the Senate, largely followed the path that leftist critics foresaw. Trump remained in office throughout, the Democrats focused overwhelmingly on questions of process and propriety, and Trump was able to present himself as the victim of state bureaucracy. The result, coming less than a year after the Mueller Report dashed earlier Democratic dreams, would seem to suggest that a fundamentally new approach is needed for beating Trump.
Yet, last week, the Democrats effectively announced that there would be no new course and plunged headlong into a renewed round of accusations against Trump and his administration. This time, the accusations center on attorney general William Barr, who intervened through the Justice Department to recommend a lighter sentence for Trump associate Roger Stone, who was convicted of interfering with Congress’s investigation into Russian election meddling.
In response to Barr’s intervention, Democrats raised a new round of accusations that the Trump administration is corrupting the organs of state for its own ends. Nine Democratic senators issued a letter calling on Barr to resign, and Amy Klobuchar has called for him to testify before the Senate under oath.
The rapidity with which the party has moved to condemn Barr speaks to its eagerness to find a new avenue to discredit the president. But in once again foregrounding complaints about how the Trump administration governs, and pushing questions of substantive policy to the background, the Democrats risk repeating their earlier failures.
The experience of both the Mueller Report and the impeachment attempt suggest that focusing on process over policy is a risky strategy. In both cases, the party bet big that information would come to light that would turn Trump into a pariah, the way the investigation of Watergate had doomed Nixon in the 1970s.
Yet in neither case did anything remotely this potent emerge. In fact, there is little evidence to suggest that Democratic efforts to discredit the president have even had any real effect on Trump’s reputation. Through both impeachment and the Mueller investigation, Trump’s approval ratings barely budged.
Politics at the Midterms
This failure to move the needle stands in stark contrast to the Democrats’ success in the 2018 midterms, by far their most impressive blow against Trump. In 2018, the Democrats gained forty-one seats in the House, a result that ranks with the Tea Party surge in 2010 and the “Republican Revolution” in 1994 as one of the biggest losses for the party of the incumbent president. The elections were also marked by the highest turnout for a midterm since 1914 — a result all the more impressive in light of the utter collapse of midterm turnout witnessed in 2014.
After the 2018 midterms, the consensus was that the Democrats had won because of their defense of popular elements of the Affordable Care Act, like Medicaid expansion and the ban on discrimination against people with preexisting medical conditions. In other words, the Democrats won because they adopted a policy agenda that directly addressed the most important concerns of the electorate, and they highlighted particularly unpopular aspects of the Trump administration’s agenda.
If focusing on policy produced the Democrats’ biggest win against Trump, why, since 2019, have they so insistently neglected this approach? I suspect their victory in 2018 is, ironically, part of what powered the shift. When the Democrats won control of the House in 2018, they not only won the ability to pass legislation out of the House, but also to initiate congressional investigations and pass articles of impeachment.
While they have surely given pride of place to investigation and impeachment, it’s not the case that the Democrats have ignored legislation. In fact, they’ve passed literally hundreds of bills in the House. Mitch McConnell’s Senate, however, has denied the vast majority of these a hearing, resulting in a legislative gridlock even more severe than that which confronted the Obama administration.
Limits of Process
In response to this, Democrats have focused on impeachment and investigations, which can’t be derailed by Republican obstructionism. To be sure, the Democrats didn’t require much prodding to move in this direction. From the beginning, their opposition to Trump has betrayed a strong proclivity for focusing on process-oriented, “this is not normal”–type agitation.
Yet if legislative gridlock is part of what led the Democrats to focus on process politics, it is also one of the factors that explains why that focus has persistently failed to deliver. The defense of a legitimate political process, which Trump violates, can only be effective if people trust that process to deliver the goods.
Over the past few decades, people’s trust in that process has collapsed. The share of the electorate who believes that politics played by the rules will make their lives better is so diminished that it is impossible to build electoral success around it. Indeed, trust in the political process has atrophied to such an extent that Trump’s claims to represent a politician who doesn’t play by the rules is a positive asset.
In light of this, the Democrats’ attempt to nail the Trump administration on process once again seems no more likely to succeed than the Mueller investigation or impeachment. As the 2020 election moves closer, the danger of this fixation on process delivering a second term to Trump should be apparent.
But the alternative is clear. As Trump moves to cut entitlements, a focus on defending the welfare state can, as it did in 2018, move the needle. Running on defending entitlements will require a candidate who can credibly claim a commitment to these programs. Though Bernie Sanders is the obvious choice here, all indications are that the party itself would rather continue its fixation on process over policy. If the Democrats are to confront Donald Trump with the only kind of campaign that can beat him, one that focuses on exposing him as a threat to most people’s material well-being, that kind of campaign will have to be forced on them.