To the old-fashioned, it might seem crazy that the Republicans plan to fight the 2018 election as a referendum on a Trump impeachment.
Traditional wisdom was: If the president of your party is unpopular, try your utmost to de-nationalize off-year elections. Focus the voters on local issues and down-ballot candidates! “Maybe you don’t like Trump. But you like the new factory openings in our district, don’t you?”
So why are Republicans edging toward the opposite approach?
The short answer: They have no choice. The old saying, “All politics is local,” is outdated. All politics is national. In his forthcoming book, The Great Alignment, the political scientist Alan Abramowitz argues that national-party ID holds an overwhelming sway over local results. This election will be about the president, as 2014 and 2010 and 2006 were about the president. Republicans might as well face up to that fact. Rather than run away from an association that cannot be escaped, it’s tactically smarter to embrace the association and try to mobilize such turnout as can be mobilized in at-risk seats like the one they lost in the Pennsylvania special election of March 13, 2018.
The impeachment issue works because it speaks to reluctant Trump supporters, the “I wish he wouldn’t tweet so much” brigade. Message to them: If you stay home, you’re not just teaching the president a lesson, enabling a course correction on the way to the next presidential election. You’re actually voting in that presidential election now, whether you know it or not. So show up and vote for two more years!
It’s also a smart strategy because it’s … sort of true. Think of what we’ve learned already about Trump misconduct without congressional subpoena power. Imagine what might be revealed if the Democrats got hold of gavels in the House, Senate, or both. It might not literally lead to impeachment, but non-stop scandal politics would be almost guaranteed.
Which leads to the most important point. To survive, President Trump needs more than Republican votes, more than a Republican hold on one chamber or the other. He needs active Republican complicity in his future efforts to deflect investigations, whatever they may pursue. As his legal situation deteriorates, some Republicans from marginal seats may be tempted to drift away, to let justice take its course—possibly even to say or do something if justice is obstructed. Trump needs all of them bolted down, and the surest way to bolt them down is to force all Congress members to commit themselves early and fully to his protection.
Removal from office requires 67 votes in the Senate—and a broad consensus in the country that the president must go. It cannot effectively be carried out on a party-line basis, as Republicans painfully discovered during the Clinton presidency. By forcing Republicans to disavow impeachment now, Trump narrows the risks of defection later. It’s not just about the midterm results. It’s about press-ganging every last Republican, down to the most reluctant, aboard Trump’s voyage of the damned.