Why Impeachment Isn’t a Big Deal on the Trail

Why Impeachment Isn’t a Big Deal on the Trail

Hi. Welcome to On Politics, your guide to the day in national politics. I’m Reid Epstein, your host for today. Lisa is on vacation — but never fear, she will return soon!

In Washington, the impeachment inquiry of President Trump is Topic A, B and C. It gets talked about on the sidelines of kiddie soccer games and on awkward first dates. It dominates cable news coverage, suffocating presidential campaigns struggling to get attention. When public hearings begin later this week, local bars will host the sort of viewing parties that normal cities would have when the local team plays in the Super Bowl or the World Series.

But out in the real world, where the presidential campaign is marching on, impeachment is far from the minds of Democrats who are preparing to choose the party’s 2020 nominee. Even since Speaker Nancy Pelosi opened the House’s formal impeachment proceedings in September, voters and caucusgoers have been asking candidates about the issues that have mattered most since the campaign began: health care, the economy and how they are going to beat Mr. Trump — who, by the way, brings up impeachment almost every chance he gets.

The divide is just another example of our bifurcated politics. Just as Republicans and Democrats have very different media appetites, Democrats in the capital and those on the campaign trail have seemingly diametrically opposed views about what the most important issue of the day is. There is a seemingly endless parade of Democrats to cable news cameras and green rooms to opine about the case to remove the president. In Iowa and New Hampshire, Democrats are talking about practically anything else.

In the last two months, Senator Elizabeth Warren has taken 140 questions from would-be voters and caucusgoers at 31 campaign events, her campaign said. Zero of them have been about impeachment. Since June, former Vice President Joe Biden has taken more than 50 questions from voters at New Hampshire town hall stops and just one was about impeachment, an aide said.

And when The Des Moines Register tracked the types of questions posed to 17 candidates across three weeks of campaign events in Iowa, the paper’s reporters found just 10 of 321 questions were about Mr. Trump. “On the day the U.S. House voted on impeachment rules, people asked former Vice President Joe Biden about criminal justice, energy, governing and health care,” the paper wrote.

So why is this?

First, there is not much difference between the Democratic presidential candidates on the issue. They all have come out in favor of the impeachment inquiry (though Tulsi Gabbard was late to backing it and has since attacked the process during Fox News appearances).

And second, voters and caucusgoers my Times colleagues and I have spoken with recently think it’s pretty likely that the impeachment drama will be over and done with before next November — and maybe even before the primaries and caucuses begin in February.

Maybe this dynamic will change if and when the House impeaches Mr. Trump and the Senate holds a trial, forcing the six senators in the race back to Washington. But for now that prospect isn’t making them any chattier about impeachment when they are in Iowa.

“That’s my favorite reporter question: Will your schedule change if there’s an impeachment trial?” Senator Amy Klobuchar told me this month when I caught up with her in Wyoming, Iowa. “Yes, yes. But you see, I have the most endorsements of anyone from elected officials in the presidential race, so I have a lot of nice surrogates.”

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Lisa and I wrote a story for Sunday’s paper about how the rest of the 2020 Democratic presidential field is aggrieved by the attention, success and financial heft of Pete Buttigieg. And the article itself served as a Rorschach test for what people think of the candidate.

Some read the story and saw a field of more-established politicians envious of the 37-year-old South Bend mayor’s success. Joe Scarborough, the MSNBC host, drew a parallel to the resentment aimed at Barack Obama 12 years ago.

Others agreed with candidates like Amy Klobuchar and Steve Bullock that Mr. Buttigieg’s electoral history leaves a lot to be desired, or with Julián Castro that Democrats can’t put forward a nominee who has demonstrated limited appeal to black and Hispanic voters.

Republicans giggled at the intraparty sniping at a rising star in Democratic politics. “The Democrat’s triggered culture is now triggering each other,” wrote Marc Lotter, the strategic communications director for Mr. Trump’s re-election campaign, who included a crying-laughing face emoji in his tweet about the article.

We’re about to enter a much more cutthroat stage of the Democratic presidential contest. A whittling of the field is coming: While 10 candidates have qualified for the Nov. 20 debate in Atlanta, just six have punched their tickets to the Dec. 19 debate in Los Angeles. Candidates on the brink are showing signs of desperation — just look at the attacks from Mr. Castro, who hasn’t qualified for either debate, on Mr. Buttigieg and the Iowa caucus process in the last week. Expect to see more sniping at the leading candidates as those on the outside stare down the looming demise of their campaigns.

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