The strategy the Democratic Party is following in its pursuit of the impeachment of President Donald Trump is based on a half-baked analysis of public opinion. While the part that is baked is very enticing, the whole cake will cause severe indigestion. To justify this strong claim, I must lay out my credentials. I served as a Senior Associate of Columbia University’s highly regarded Bureau of Applied Social Research, where we conducted decades of studies of public opinion, working with some of the greatest mavens of the field, including Paul F. Lazarsfeld. As a professor of sociology, I have continued to closely follow trends in American public opinion for four decades.
The Democrats decided, wisely, to focus on one issue: on Trump’s bid to draw on his power as the president not to serve U.S. interests, but to increase his chance of reelection, even as his months-long pressure campaign undermined Ukraine’s effort to stand up to Russia. The Democrats correctly figured that what happened here is a straightforward issue, which the public at large can wrap its head around and understand. It is dramatic and the charges are well-supported by evidence—i.e., there is, to paraphrase Mark Shields, a whole smoking armory, not merely a smoking gun. The Democrats also realize that harping on the Mueller report is not carrying the day because the public finds it confusing and inconclusive. So far so good.
I predict, however, that the narrow focus of the impeachment will run into two traps. First of all, Trump and his associates are already “normalizing” his misconduct by arguing that such conduct is common. White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney has stated: “I have news for everybody: Get over it. There’s going to be political influence in foreign policy.” The president’s supporters will be able to point to steps taken by other presidents that will seem similar to the public to what Trump did. And the GOP will argue that even if this case of quid pro quo was wrong, it is not sufficient to remove an elected president from office. During the trial to follow, they will bring witnesses who will highlight these two points and muddle the waters, very likely leading to acquittal. Trump then will go into the 2020 election having been “vindicated.” The narrow case for impeachment will also suffer once the identity of the whistleblower, who started the whole ball rolling, is revealed.