Let’s be honest. The impeachment fever raging in Washington isn’t entirely about the phone call President Trump made to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky.
It’s about Brett Kavanaugh. It’s about Russia and the Mueller report. It’s about Stormy Daniels. It’s about mean tweets aimed at the Squad. It’s about Jared and Ivanka. It’s about emoluments and golf. It’s about election night 2016. And it’s about a needed pressure-release valve for Democrats.
Since the beginning of the Trump presidency, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has been fending off calls to impeach Trump. The clamor started on the left fringe and quickly worked its way toward her inner circle, with committee chairs and her close friends in the conference publicly embracing impeachment in increasing numbers following the 2018 midterm.
On top of the dam breaking in Pelosi’s conference, clear majorities of Democratic voters have favored impeaching Trump for two years, even as clear majorities of the broader electorate did not. The intensity of partisan Democratic opinion has been magnified by the presidential primary, with numerous candidates — most notably Elizabeth Warren — loudly banging the impeachment drum, and attracting large crowds in the process.
Most Democrats had hoped special counsel Robert S. Mueller III would do their dirty work for them, issuing a report showing presidential behavior so egregious that impeachment was the only option. But Mueller’s report and subsequent testimony badly underwhelmed, giving Pelosi little to work with. And, as she kept reminding House Democrats, the overall electorate didn’t back impeachment.
The Ukraine fiasco seemed to provide the relief valve Pelosi had long sought. But does it? There is, of course, the possibility that more damning information will turn up about the president’s dealing with Ukraine. In the absence of that, however, I wouldn’t put money on a major shift in the electorate’s attitude toward impeachment. As political analyst Charlie Cook tweeted on Wednesday: “I was totally underwhelmed by the transcript. After the build-up, it was not much more inappropriate … than we hear from him in a typical week. This will not move malleable voters.”
In some ways, though, this impeachment mania has deeply satisfied partisans on both sides of the Trump divide.
For Republicans, who were at their most unified and happy when fighting the successful battle over the confirmation of Supreme Court Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh, impeachment offers a new chance to strap on the conservative armor and fight the bloodthirsty partisans who have tried to delegitimize a duly elected Republican president.
For Democrats, who are perpetually unified in their loathing of Trump even as they face deep divides over the ideological direction of their party, Pelosi has finally handed them a back scratcher to use on an itchy spot that has been just out of reach during the last two years. To finally relieve that agitation feels good to those who have convinced themselves that Trump stole the 2016 election and subsequently two Supreme Court seats.
In other words, we’re right where we started, with everyone in their corners. Two groups of Americans look at the same call, the same transcript, the same documents and the same punditry and walk away with vastly and diametrically opposed conclusions.
But often these corners are without lamps, making them very dark. And when you retreat to a dark corner you often fail to see the vulnerabilities in front of your face.
For Republicans, who are preparing for a pitched battle in which the outcome is almost certain — impeachment in the House, acquittal in the Senate — the spectacle may finally exhaust the American people to the point that they simply can’t take four more years. The daily drama and deluge that is Donald Trump may finally push the American electorate to its breaking point — we can’t take it anymore! — and turn the 2020 election into a search for calmer waters. Beyond that, any Republican who fails to recognize the danger of having the unelected and unappointed Rudolph W. Giuliani gallivanting about eastern Europe conducting American foreign policy is a fool.
For Democrats, who have overreached time and again on Trump, the American public simply may not find the Ukrainian matter all that compelling and wonder why the new Democratic House majority isn’t doing as much governing as they are raging against the White House. And any Democrat who pooh-poohs the allegations of bad judgment and even worse optics of Hunter Biden making millions of dollars from shady Ukrainian and Chinese companies, in industries in which he had no particular expertise other than having been born with the same last name as the sitting vice president, is a fool.
Although Pelosi’s speech this week didn’t functionally change much, she will no longer be able to stop a floor vote on impeachment, and that means Senate Republicans cannot avoid having the issue land in their lap. I doubt more than a handful of Democrats would vote against impeachment today, let alone in a few weeks when the articles finally hit the floor. Both parties are now in uncharted waters because of a presidency that itself long ago sailed off the edge of the map of the known political universe.
Where it ends, who knows. But for most Americans trying to follow this fast-moving circus, I suspect the central question they have is: Do any of these politicians spend any time worrying about me?
Scott Jennings is a Republican advisor, former special assistant to President George W. Bush and a CNN political commentator. He is a contributing writer to Opinion.