The Democratic debate got underway just 24 hours after the U.S. House voted to impeach President Trump, and the candidates struggled to explain why more Americans were not enthusiastic about that move.
Public opinion is nearly evenly divided on impeachment. Throughout the weeks of impeachment proceedings, with testimony arguably damaging to the president dominating the news day after day, voter feelings about impeachment barely budged from where they were before the hearings began. The candidates rarely talk about the issue on the campaign trail, choosing to focus instead on bread-and-butter economic issues.
“This is beyond public opinion, beyond polls, beyond politics,” said Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Ind. He suggested the impeachment proceedings have brought into focus for Americans that the system is rigged, with Senate leaders declaring before hearing any evidence that they plan to speedily acquit Trump.
“The president left the House with no choice” but to impeach, Buttigieg said. “We cannot get into that sense of helplessness; that is what they want. They want us to be taken in by that cynicism where we give up on the process altogether.”
“No matter what happens in the Senate, it is up to us in 2020. This is our chance to … refuse and reject the cynicism,” he said.
Yet most of the candidates debating Thursday at Loyola Marymount University were hard-pressed to explain why more voters were not persuaded by the impeachment case built by House Democrats. They chose instead to sidestep that question and launch into missives about why they believe Trump abused his power.
“My job is to go out and make the case why he doesn’t deserve to be president,” former Vice President Joe Biden said.
Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders launched into his signature talking points about corruption. “We have a president who is a pathological liar,” he said. “We have a president who is running the most corrupt administration in the modern history of this country. And we have a president who is a fraud.… we cannot have a president with that temperament who is dishonoring the presidency of the United States.”
Sanders did not explain why hour after hour of impeachment proceedings failed to persuade more voters that the president should be removed from office.
Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren more directly answered the question. She suggested that the stagnancy of voter opinion on impeachment underscores her point that Democrats need a nominee who can argue against Trump persuasively. “We have to prosecute the case against him,” she said. “We need a candidate who can draw a sharp distinction.”
The candidate who most directly confronted the question of why voters were not moved by the impeachment case was businessman Andrew Yang. He said the Democratic Party’s focus on removing Trump has sent voters the wrong message.
Yang warned that acting like “Donald Trump is the cause of all our problems” will merely cause “more Americans [to] lose trust that we can see what is going on inside our communities.”
“We need to stop obsessing about impeachment … and start digging in and solving the problems that got Donald Trump elected in the first place,” he said.