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How Trump's election prospects in 2020 are being helped by impeachment

Trump now can rile his base by portraying himself as a victim. Democrats, meanwhile, wasted a lot of time on a process that got them little.
President Donald Trump
President Donald Trump.Mike Segar / Reuters file

Impeachment has come and gone, and President Donald Trump remains firmly ensconced in the Oval Office. Democrats might not have been shocked that months of wall-to-wall coverage of Trump's corrupt call to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy didn't lead to his removal from office, given GOP control of the Senate. But they should be smarting to discover that not only did the bald evidence of presidential misconduct not move the needle among Republicans; it also didn't move the needle among the general public — at least, not to the president's detriment.

The dearth of outrage at and disapproval of Trump during the impeachment proceedings shows that a campaign needs more to oust him than a focus on his morals, character and ethics.

The impeachment process has left Trump stronger than ever politically. The president's esteem among voters has risen since his Senate acquittal last Wednesday, nine months before he faces re-election. It's a result that has Democrats fretting while the party's presidential candidates jockey in the early primary states for the right to challenge Trump in the fall — as they should.

During the course of the impeachment, Trump hit his highest approval rating since he took office, 49 percent. He first reached that peak over Jan. 16-29, according to Gallup, in the midst of the Senate trial. And that number held steady in the first survey since Trump's acquittal, a Hill/HarrisX poll conducted Feb. 6-7.

How could it be that impeachment helped Trump? Well, for one thing, everyday Americans showed no signs that they cared about the process. They didn't watch the impeachment proceedings on television in any great numbers, and they didn't want candidates focusing on them on the campaign trail. A WBUR New Hampshire poll released Jan. 28 found that voters in the first primary state instead wanted candidates to talk about the issues — health care topped the list, with 48 percent mentioning it.

When asked only about impeachment, voters in an NBCLX poll conducted Feb. 4-5 by Morning Consult indicated that very little benefit is accruing to Democrats. While 36 percent said impeachment made them less likely to vote for Trump, 32 percent said it made no difference and 32 percent said the impeachment trial actually made them more likely to vote to re-elect Trump. When you factor in the poll's 2-percentage-point margin of error, the numbers indicate that impeachment was essentially a wash for Democrats.

On the other hand, impeachment gives Trump a powerful new means to rile the base by portraying himself as a victim of a partisan inquiry. His rambling performance Thursday in the East Room of the White House — lashing outat House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Rep. Adam Schiff of California, the lead House manager in the impeachment proceedings, and assorted other Democrats — makes it clear he feels emboldened to pursue this line of attack. Trump followed up the next day by firing or pushing out people who testified against him in the House impeachment proceedings.

Many Republican allies are doing the same, calling the impeachment a "deep state" conspiracy to end Trump's presidency early. "The one thing I would say that is sharp and in focus for me is that the bureaucracy is clearly against this guy," Sen. Kevin Cramer, R-N.D., said Jan. 24.

That sentiment was echoed by many Republican voters in a New York Times roundup of Americans' views of impeachment. "The president did not do anything wrong. It's a shame that so many people hate the president to the point where they will try to make the case where there is none," Bill Marcy, 73, a Republican from Mississippi, was quoted as saying.

This is a smart strategy for Trump and his boosters because his best chance at re-election comes from ginning up his base, given his polarizing persona. And the political damage for Democrats doesn't stop there.

If Trump wins or loses on his ability to turn out his base, Democrats' best hope for victory in November is to pull a large share of independent-minded swing voters to their side in addition to a strong showing from their own voters. That challenge is a big one given how robust the stock market and other economic indicators are right now. Which means Democrats need some winning political cards, pronto. And impeachment just showed that their aces are actually ones.

The dearth of outrage at and disapproval of Trump during the impeachment proceedings shows that a campaign needs more to oust him than a focus on his morals, character and ethics — or lack thereof. And thanks to the wall-to-wall coverage of his impeachment and the Mueller report, which fell flat before it, Americans are, if anything, more deadened to news about Trump's personal flaws.

Then there's the issue of opportunity cost. Given the structural challenges to defeating Trump (see: the aforementioned thriving economy), Democrats have wasted a tremendous amount of time and resources railing against his involvement with Ukraine and Russia when they could have been talking about health care, wage stagnation, education, climate change and many other subjects.

Amazingly, some Democrats and other Trump critics still see impeachment as having been a wise political bet. "This will come back to haunt Trump and his enablers," a headline on a New York Times op-ed by Obama administration officials Neal K. Katyal and Joshua A. Geltzer declared the day of the president's acquittal, citing no evidence to back up their claim.

For Democrats not to set themselves back further, they need to accept that impeachment only lost them ground in the race for the White House.

Similarly, Jeremi Suri, a history professor at the University of Texas at Austin, wrote with hope, but not facts, of a future American voting public that turns on Trump's party: "Defined now by a criminal president, the Republican Party became a legacy institution with rapidly diminishing support among every growing demographic of citizens in the United States."

Such wishful thinking shows the Democrats have not absorbed the basic political lessons of their trip down the impeachment rabbit hole. This is not to excuse what Trump did or to suggest that impeachment was wrong on moral grounds — and maybe the political price was worth paying for the importance of trying to hold a president accountable. But for Democrats not to set themselves back further, they need to accept that impeachment only lost them ground in the race for the White House and that the remaining months must be focused on a course correction.