How the rush to impeachment makes a Center-Left shift in US politics less likely

Photo by Louis Velazquez on Unsplash

What a difference one week makes! The media dialog about the 2020 Presidential race had been all about weighing the probabilities of the Democrats nominating one of its two progressive candidates and the degree to which this increasingly likely scenario would affect the Democrats’ chances to beat Donald Trump, recover ground in the Senate and maintain their control of the House of Representatives. The leak of the existence of a whistleblower complaint to the Washington Post now has replaced this speculation with a wholly new question. How likely is it that the Democratic majority in the House will impeach the President on the strength of the revelation that Donald Trump had sought the help of the President of the Ukraine to investigate corruption involving Joe Biden in 2016? This reframe of the 2020 election, if it sticks, will have consequences that are impossible to predict with precision but certainly shifts probabilities I previously assigned to the three main scenarios. For background on these scenarios, please see my original article here.

The way I see it now, the probabilities have shifted away from the Democrats and especially away from a policy victory based on Center-Left ideas. They are:

  • Center-Left Coalition (48%) (-3%)

What you will notice is that I predict that the shift to the impeachment scenario will do the following: reduce the likelihood of a Center-Left victory in 2020 and raise the likelihood of a Radical Middle Breakout but not as much as raise the likelihood of a renewed Right-Nationalist mandate. The fact that impeachment of Donald Trump may end up helping his chances has already been commented upon by others. My strong endorsement of these worries does not put me in a lonely spot. For me they do not come out of nowhere. They were also anticipated in the types of evidence I cited in my original post as influencing my predictions.

Impeachment weakens the Center-Left coalition. I had stated firmly that my prediction that a Center-Left victory would occur in 2020 was partially dependent on the Trump coalition holding together. My judgment here was that if Trump crossed a line with elements of his electoral coalition and splits appeared in Republican support for Trump that would encourage elites to foresee a new coalition among moderate Democrats and moderate Republicans to end the Trump threat to the “rules-based international order (RBIO)” without requiring big domestic concessions to liberal activists or to voters likely to support Warren and Sanders based on material economic issues. If impeachment succeeds from its proponent’s perspective, it will because either the Senate will remove Donald Trump or that the trial in the Senate will so damage Trump’s standing that a serious primary challenge arises within Republican ranks. Let’s assume that the Senate votes to remove Trump. This will only be because some Senate Republicans abandon the President. If the trial in the Senate damages Trump at all it will also be because it reveals him as unreliable on issues important to Republicans and some of their voters, like an aggressive foreign policy against Putin’s Russia. Thus, if impeachment “succeeds” it will mean that Trump will be weaker and his appeal to the lower 80% in socio-economic-status also weaker. All things being equal, this will make a credible overture to disappointed Sanders and Warren voters less important for a Democratic candidate. A candidate who appeals to the Center will stand a better chance of snatching up middle-class Republican voters that are disgusted with Trump, a fact which sections of the media and elite donors to campaigns will leap upon. Thus in terms of my model (see below), CLC(iv) points lower and RCB(v) points higher. Meanwhile disgusted anti-establishment voters will stay home.

The Right-Nationalist Coalition will prove resilient. So why do I think the chances of Trump winning by keeping the Right-Nationalist Coalition together have risen. Didn’t I commit in my RNC criteria (RNC (ii)) to weighing evidence that Trump’s scandals will catch up with him as decreasing the likelihood of a Trump victory? Yes I did, but I now believe that evidence that the impeachment spectacle will open up big gaps between the political ambitions of the Democratic Center and those Left activist forces that are attempting to turn Anti-Trump anger into a campaign for structural change. In other words the evidence of the type described in RNC(iii) will outweigh the opposite effect in RNC(ii).

There was already broad-based popular skepticism about the Russia-gate rationale for removing Trump from office. The polls on impeachment were clear on this point. While initial polling shows some uptick in support, over time the Ukraine story will essentially double-down on the problems that plagued the Mueller Report. The sense of outrage about Trump’s conduct cannot help but depend on a tacit assumption that the “proper” US policy towards Ukraine is to encourage forces hostile to Russia and to use our influence over events there to frustrate Russian foreign policy interests (which is essentially is to normalize of the seizure of Crimea and to prevent Ukraine from joining NATO and the EU). Let’s leave the merits of challenging Russia aside for now. There is a big divide between elite and popular opinions on such things as Ukraine and Russia. The educated elites whether “liberal” or “conservative” generally supports US foreign policy goals of promoting “human rights” and “democracy” and are skeptical of new style autocrats such as Putin and Xi. Opinion outside of these precincts is considerably more skeptical of “us vs. them” thinking that pits our hallowed “democratic” institutions (“good”) against the “authoritarian” institutions of foreign rivals (“bad”). The problem is that the experience of living in the United States since the turn of the millennium has taught many people not to believe what elites say about the economy or about foreign policy. Again, my point is not to argue that the elite liberals are wrong about the difference between liberal democracy as practiced in the West and the compromised “illiberal” democracy as practiced in places like Russia. It is to say that Trump will find wells of sympathy that are willing to believe that he is being framed by “liberal elites” who want to push “endless wars” and tie down US troops in “hot spots” all over the world. He will also gain, as he did in 2016, from the generalized suspicion that all politicians are corrupt and thus the elite outrage against his conduct is all “fake.” Nothing likely to emerge here will bother convinced Republican voters, who will stick with Trump en masse (despite the fulminations of foreign policy hawks). Furthermore, Trump’s and the nationalist Right’s “anti-elite” framing will help neutralize and de-politicize a lot of anti-establishment Sanders supporters even if leading Left activists urge a “united front” with Democrats against Trump. Net-net, better for Trump and the RNC, worse for a “centrist” Democrat with impeccable elite foreign policy bona fides and the “right” positions on the economy for Wall Street and Silicon Valley. Trump will crush an establishment Democrat with weak name-recognition in an election framed again, like 2016, in populist terms.

No institutional path will open for a Radical Middle Breakout. Finally, with all this energy trying to engineer a Radical Middle Breakout, why am I only raising its likelihood one percentage point? Essentially, I am weighing heavily the institutional factors that held the RMB scenario to such a low likelihood to begin with. At the simplest level, Joe Biden, up until now the most likely candidate to carry the RMB banner, will be hurt by the impeachment escapade, regardless of the merits of the case against him. Hunter Biden’s role as a director of a Ukrainian energy company only makes sense if access to power is part of the calculation. The optics are terrible. One would have to imagine that one of the other moderates (Mayor Pete, Kamala Harris, Corey Booker, Amy Klobuchar etc.) could emerge out of the shadow and make the same appeal to rank-and-file democrats who have bought the message that its best to unite around the frontrunner and end the partisan bickering as soon as possible. Unfortunately, Biden was the only candidate whose name recognition and stature as Vice-President under the still popular Barack Obama made claiming “frontrunner” status possible. The others would have to make a different argument — I’m the most appealing new flavor and I alone can unite Democrats of all stripes, peel off moderate Republicans and beat Trump. That is harder to make and can never replicate the “above-the-fray” “let’s end this now” appeal of Biden. Maybe Tom Steyer can break out because he is “new” and an “outsider.” But as a Silicon-Valley rich guy, he will not find a lot of enthusiasm among those supporting Warren and Sanders or natural appeal to blue collar Democrats in the Midwest or South, white, black or hispanic. Moreover, a Democratic centrist needs to win the Democratic primaries and the swing to the Left among the likely primary electorate looks likely to hold.

For those hoping for a Center-Left victory and the positive changes it might mean for the US and the world (a robust Green New Deal and a reduction in inequality), the best tactic will be to keep the focus on the 2020 election and the voters whom such a candidate will need to motivate and distance yourself from the day-to-day impeachment drama. But that piece of advice reveals my normative preferences and goes beyond my model.

Note on my methods: These are probabilities of a victory scenario coming to pass, not the percentage of the popular vote won by each coalition. The coalitions are not running in the election, of course. The coalition scenarios will instead be what propels a major-party Presidential candidate to victory in the electoral college and sway the results in Senate and House races. In my view, the Democrats retaking the Senate is not necessary for a Center-Left coalition “victory.” Taking the US Presidency and holding a policy-majority in the US House is enough. I recognize that this is a debatable point. If retaking the Senate is required to be counted as “victory”, the chances of a Center-Left victory fall below 50%. The types of evidence I announced I would rely upon are as follows:

The type of evidence that increases the likelihood of a successful Center-Left Coalition (CLC) would be: (i) good performance by Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders in early primaries, especially among voters in areas that supported Trump in 2016 and especially in purple states that could influence the electoral vote; (ii) continued indulgence by elite editorialists of the policy “excesses” of leading candidates as not undermining their ultimate “reliability” (in the minds of the business and the meritocratic classes) as they are clearly obligated to try to steal Sanders’ thunder in the primaries; (iii) re-emergence of unemployment and other serious domestic economic worries; (iv) continued stability in the Trump coalition making creation of the broadest anti-Trump coalition necessary.

The type of evidence that increases the likelihood of a Radical Middle Breakout (RMB) and its ultimate victory would be: (i) poor early primary performance of Sanders, Warren and (after her attempted take-down of Biden) Harris; (ii) continued strength in the Biden candidacy; (iii) surprise emergence in the primaries of a reliable “moderate” Democrat (Klobuchar, Buttigieg, Booker, Bennet or O’Roarke) who can attract voters initially in Biden’s camp without promising “shiny objects” to the Left; (iv) intensifying the campaign in the elite media and among the pundit-class generally about the dangers of too much “socialism” and the risks of a Center-Left electoral strategy specifically; (v) erosion of generalized elite support for Trump due to scandals and/or international crises or embarrassments; (iv) evidence emerging over the primaries that a significant segment of voters is sufficiently radicalized or disillusioned to make it unlikely that they would vote in the general election for the moderate Democrat who appears able to win the nomination. All these would make a bet on a more narrow Democratic coalition seem smart or at least smart-ish.

The type of evidence that increases the likelihood of a Right-Nationalist Coalition (RNC) victory would be: (i) no economic surprises and no surge of unemployment; (ii) no scandals or international crisis or embarrassments that make Trump look like a poor bet; (iii) outbreak of open conflict between Center and Left elite and activists as reflected among Democratic candidates and wars of words around issues of economic populism and privilege; (iv) a galvanizing national emergency that allows Trump to look like a successful leader.

Partner at Practus, LLP, a law firm. Rick advises clients on issues at the intersection of business strategy, law and political economy.

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