Opinion: Democrats are debating again, but most eyes are on impeachment

Pete Buttigieg will be a larger target during the Democratic debate after surging in polls in Iowa and New Hampshire.
(Amy Harris / Invision/AP)

Ten candidates seeking the Democratic nomination for president square off Wednesday evening in Atlanta for yet another debate, the fifth of the cycle. Think many people will notice?

Um, probably not.

But still, this could mark a transition point in the Democratic campaign. Although former Vice President Joe Biden still leads in national polls, the political landscape has changed noticeably since the last debate. Pete Buttigieg, the mayor of South Bend, Ind., has surged in Iowa and New Hampshire, which hold the first contests in February — just over three months away. So he will be a fresh target.

Also, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) recently joined the rest of the pack in releasing a healthcare proposal in the form of a $20-trillion “Medicare for all” program, a development that guarantees at least 20 minutes of mind-numbing back-and-forth debate in Atlanta over whose likely dead-on-arrival plan would be best for the country.


Healthcare is a top policy issue for most Democratic voters, according to polls. But the dominant national political story these days isn’t whom the Democrats will nominate; it’s the drama playing out on Capitol Hill with the House Intelligence Committee‘s impeachment hearings.

That won’t offer much fodder, though, for a Democratic debate in which all of the candidates have said Trump ought to be impeached. It would be interesting, though, if they were asked whether they thought the national interest would be better served by forcing Trump out of office through impeachment — a long shot, given the fealty of Trump’s Republican supporters in the Senate — or by waiting for a Democratic candidate to beat him in the November 2020 election.

But debate, they will.

Even with Buttigieg’s surge in Iowa and New Hampshire, he still trails badly in national polling at 8%, which places him fourth behind Biden, at 30.7%; Warren, 18%; and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), 16.7%.


Looking ahead, though, the debate schedule and Congress’ impeachment schedule offer an interesting overlap.

The final debate will be Dec. 19, here in Los Angeles. The House may well have voted to impeach by then, sending the issue to the Senate for trial after the first of the year.

Republican mischief-makers say they may try to lengthen the trial to disrupt the ability of the six Democratic contenders for the nomination who serve in the Senate — led by Warren and Sanders — to campaign in the early primary states where candidates’ presences, and absences, are noted. Under Senate rules, impeachment trials run uninterrupted for six days a week with senators observing silently from their desks until a verdict is rendered.

So we’ll have competing issues before the candidates Wednesday evening. The first, driven by the latest headlines, is whether to remove the president from office in the near future. If he isn’t, the second question is, who stands the best chance of beating Trump at the polls in November.


So it turns out, House Democrats’ effort to impeach Trump may have the most dramatic effect yet on the Democratic field — to the detriment of the candidates forced to spend weeks in the Senate chamber instead of on the campaign trail.