There’s a big divide among congressional Democrats when it comes to their biggest issue of this summer: To impeach President Trump or not.
The split appears to be over whether Trump’s alleged offenses have been sufficiently egregious to rise to the level of “high crimes and misdemeanors,” but that’s not really where Democrats differ. The real rift may be most visible in California’s congressional delegation.
This is more about strategy and survival than it is about crimes. It’s about electability, not felonies; future majorities, not major crimes.
Democrats plainly agree on their fundamental beliefs about the President: Virtually all would say Trump obstructed justice. They agree he caused the virtual kidnapping of hundreds of immigrant children. And they concur that he has profited personally from the presidency, violating laws against foreign emoluments by, among other things, encouraging foreign visitors to stay at his high-priced hotel in Washington, DC.
But some Democrats plainly believe there could be highly personal consequences for them in impeachment, while others see absolutely no peril to their personal positions.
This is where the big difference lies: For House Democrats representing secure, “safe” Democratic-dominated districts, impeachment appears obviously necessary, with a quick start to the process looking best.
Meanwhile, almost all those in swing districts favor a go-slow process.
These realities also explain why House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, a San Francisco Democrat and a hardened realist, keeps pushing the brakes on the drive from her party’s left for early impeachment hearings, which would coincide with the fall’s semi-official start of presidential campaigning.
Simply put (and she would never say this aloud), Pelosi fears a premature impeachment could imperil or lose her party’s recently-won House majority by spurring more Trump supporters to vote. She also knows that once the decision to start proceedings is made, she’ll lose the major club she now holds over Trump.
No one knows, for example, just what she told Trump over the phone after he threatened massive illegal immigration raids in late June, but it is known that he backed off that plan within hours of their conversation.
This all plays out plainly in California’s 53-member House delegation, where most members come from safe districts and have nothing to fear from proceeding. But the seven Democrats who wrested away longtime Republican seats last year in places like Orange County and the Central Valley know their slots are tenuous, at best.
“Safe” Democrat Tony Cardenas, is one example. The San Fernando Valley representative declares “It’s time to begin an impeachment inquiry into this President and get to the truth.” Easy for him to say; he won an 81 percent majority last time out.
By contrast, Fresno area Democrat TJ Cox eked out a 50.4 to 49.6 percent margin last year in a race not finally decided until after Thanksgiving. “The troubling conclusions of the Mueller report are the beginning of a discussion on how to protect our democracy,” he said. “In short, let’s take it easy. He’s for investigating, but no more than that just now.”
It’s the same across the country, where most of the 40 Democratic pickups in 2018 came in “purple” districts where the new incumbents are not yet solidly entrenched. It usually takes two or three terms before any congressman has done enough for his or her district to feel comfortable about reelection.
Meanwhile, Republicans are actively seeking the strongest possible potential candidates to contest first-term Democrats like Harley Rouda, Katie Porter and Gil Cisneros in Orange County, Katie Hill of Santa Clarita, Cox and Josh Harder, from the Modesto area.
About the only new California congressional Democrat who can feel truly secure is Mike Levin, who got 56 percent of the vote last year in an open district covering parts of San Diego and Orange counties.
Other Democrats in perpetually contested districts, including Ami Bera of Elk Grove and the Stockton area’s Jerry McNerny also must be cautious.
Pelosi understands all this, taking a wider view of her party’s needs and status than some of the more radical members of her caucus. Which explains why impeachment most likely won’t come soon, if ever.
Email Thomas Elias at email@example.com