Almost alone among Democrats, Beto O'Rourke said he would vote to impeach President Trump.William Philpott / Reuters

Beto O’Rourke, the congressman from Texas who’s seeking to oust Senator Ted Cruz, recently broke with fellow Democrats by daring to mention The Issue That Shall Not Be Uttered. Referencing President Donald Trump’s behavior at the Helsinki summit, O’Rourke said: “Standing on stage in another country with the leader of another country who wants to and has sought to undermine this country, and to side with him over the United States—if I were asked to vote on this [in Congress], I would vote to impeach the president.”

There it was, the dreaded I word that Democratic leaders have virtually banned from the 2018 campaign conversation. O’Rourke, in his remarks to The Dallas Morning News, offered a reasonable explanation for his stance—“Impeachment, much like an indictment, shows that there is enough there for the case to proceed”—but few, if any, Democratic midterm hopefuls seem eager to go there. A candidate like Andy Kim, who’s trying to flip a red congressional seat in South Jersey, has no problem calling Trump’s Helsinki performance “disappointing, dangerous, and detrimental to our national security,” but, like his brethren, he won’t broach the I word.

Some Democratic activists—most notably the billionaire Tom Steyer, whose “Need to Impeach” movement boasts 5.5 million signatures—believe that the Democrats, by muzzling the I word, are “normalizing” Trump’s abuses (as Steyer puts it) and therefore failing to stand up for the rule of law. And some outside observers insist that the I word is fully justified. Former CIA Director John Brennan tweeted that Trump’s decision in Helsinki to side with Vladimir Putin against the U.S. intelligence community “rises to & exceeds the threshold of ‘high crimes and misdemeanors.’ It was nothing short of treasonous.”

It’s likely that many Democrats privately share that belief, and new developments this summer and fall—Paul Manafort’s current fraud trial, fresh leaks from Michael Cohen, another round of indictments, the long-awaited release of Robert Mueller’s report—may well cement the belief among Democrats that a newly captured Congress should pursue impeachment if the weight of the evidence warrants it. In fact, there’s already an impeachment constituency; in a CNN/SSRS poll from last month, 42 percent of Americans said Trump should be impeached and removed—virtually identical to the 43 percent who said that about Richard Nixon, in a Harris poll, five months before he resigned in 1974.

But Democratic leaders—Nancy Pelosi, Chuck Schumer, the people running the House and Senate campaign committees—utter the I word only when asked, and only to insist that whatever Democrats may believe about Trump’s culpability, campaigning about it would be bad politics. When Rolling Stone recently broached the topic while interviewing Pelosi, she said that the issue would be “a gift to the Republicans … I don’t think it’s in the interest of America’s working families to focus on that, unless we have more [evidence] to go on, which we don’t at this time … What we’re [emphasizing] is the economic security of working families.”

She’s arguing that Democratic candidates need to reconnect with voters (who deserted the Democrats in the red-wave midterms of 2010 and 2014) by prioritizing kitchen-table issues that affect their daily lives—most notably health care, which polls very well for the party at the GOP’s expense. A new national poll, released Tuesday, shows solid support for protecting or expanding Obamacare (including 63 percent of “never Hillary” independents) and solid disapproval for Trump’s health-care policies (including 64 percent of those independents). Pelosi doesn’t want to “gift” the Republicans a constitutional crisis issue that could infuriate—and further energize—Trump’s GOP base, which is already stoked by the “witch hunt” trope.

Norman Ornstein, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and a fervent Trump critic, told me that Democrats are smart to leave the I word alone. He happens to believe that Trump in Helsinki “met the constitutional test for treason, the most clear-cut high crime and misdemeanor.” But talking about that on the stump would likely collide with the political facts of life. Ornstein, who has analyzed Congress and national politics since the ’70s, said:

I can understand the caution that many Democratic leaders feel … It’s the fear that talk of impeachment will motivate tribal Republicans. The normal pattern in a wave election is that the president’s party is demoralized, disillusioned, and depressed, and doesn’t turn out, while the [out of power party] is upset and angry, and does. But remember, we’re now driven by negative partisanship—people motivated more by the desire to keep the evil forces on the other side from destroying our way of life than they are motivated by attachment to their own. So a widespread call for impeachment could ignite a strong reaction from Trump voters to show up and defeat the enemy, even if they’re not so happy with Trump’s bombast, corruption, sellout to Putin, and trade war.

Veteran Democrats also remember what happened in 1998 when Republicans stumped in the midterms for the impeachment of President Bill Clinton. House Speaker Newt Gingrich led the chorus, and the GOP expected big gains on Election Day. The strategy flopped. Republicans lost three House seats, and Gingrich promptly quit. The lesson of the episode: Impeachment, as a partisan issue, is a loser on the trail.  

And despite Tom Steyer’s current contention that the I word has strong grassroots support—he says his number crunchers have identified 697,780 “infrequent voters” who’d go to the polls for impeachment in 63 competitive House races—an NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist poll, released in April, suggests that impeachment would turn off a huge share of independents. Yes, 42 percent of all registered voters would definitely support a candidate who calls for Trump’s removal—but 47 percent (including the same percentage of independents) said they’d definitely oppose such a candidate. For many independents, impeachment likely implies a worsening of the partisan gridlock they reputedly abhor.

This helps to explain why top Democrats like Jerry Nadler are so cautious. Nadler, a congressman from New York, would take the gavel of the House Judiciary Committee—the key impeachment panel—if a blue wave shifts the chamber in November. But here’s what he told a town-hall gathering back in February: “I would dearly love to preside over the impeachment of Donald Trump.” However, “I don’t know if we can do that, or will do that, or would do that.” It might hinge on what Mueller says publicly, and even if Democrats take the House, the impeachment evidence would have to be strong enough to convince at least “some appreciable fraction” of Trump supporters that action was warranted—because otherwise, Nadler said, “you will tear the country apart.”

Granted, even if Democrats continue to avoid the I word, Trump and his allies will likely invoke it anyway, quoting the few lawmakers who have used it (such as Representative Maxine Waters) to feed his “witch hunt” narrative. But Democrats need not take the bait. The brunt of Mueller’s work remains under wraps, so they’re probably wise to bide their time and ride the facts as they emerge.

In the meantime, they can promise to provide a vigilant check on Trump. They can ask why the Republican majority hasn’t protected Mueller’s job, and why Trump still hasn’t released the tax returns that could show whether he’s vulnerable to foreign blackmail. Micah L. Sifry, a veteran grassroots activist who runs Personal Democracy Media, told me that “many voters are wondering why Congress isn’t, as the second branch of government, playing this oversight role … It should concern every American that their president not only is not taking steps to protect our core democratic institutions and processes from a new round of attacks, but that he also continues to deny the seriousness of what happened in 2016.

“The issue” he said, “isn’t whether [Democrats] should talk about impeachment or not. It’s that they should be fighting to get answers that could help determine if impeachment is warranted.”

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