Swing State Pres

Thursday, January 2, 2020

BTRTN: What Is Pelosi Up To With Her Impeachment Stall?

Tom with the BTRTN December 2019 Month in Review, and a look at Pelosi’s gambit.

THE LEAD

·        The House of Representatives impeached President Trump, passing two articles of impeachment – on abuse of power and obstruction of Congress – largely along party lines.

Image result for december 2019 calendar·        Trump thus joined Andrew Johnson and Bill      Clinton as the third president to be impeached, although Richard Nixon, the only president to resign office, was well on the way to      impeachment before the “smoking gun” tape accelerated his departure.

·        The articles were crafted by the House Judiciary committee after a day of public testimony by four constitutional scholars, three of whom testified there was ample justification for impeachment, while the fourth disagreed.

·        The votes followed a day of rancorous House debate on the articles that featured a study in the incredible contrast of the two parties, not just in their positions on impeachment, but even more in their composition, tone and degree of articulation.

·        But just as America readied itself for a quick Senate trial with a pre-ordained outcome in January, Nancy Pelosi held up transmitting the articles to the Senate in a chess move that caught everyone off-guard, wondering what she was planning.

·        Even while the impeachment battle was enjoined, against all odds Congress came together on two major pieces of legislation that sandwiched the impeachment vote, passing the USMCA trade pact and a $1.4 trillion budget in deals that revealed how common ground can be found even in poisonously partisan times.

·        And the month and year ended ominously with an attack on the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad and North Korea walking away from self-imposed limits on nuclear and ballistic missile testing, both of which will test Trump in 2020.


THE MONTH

Nancy Pelosi never wanted this impeachment. 

Contrary to the accusations of dozens of GOP representatives in the impeachment debates, Democrats have not been looking to impeach Trump since his Inaugural.  Oh maybe some have, but certainly not the majority, and not Pelosi, the one who counts the most.  In fact, the House has twice voted down impeachment resolutions, once in December, 2017 and again in January, 2018.  Each time, the vast majority of Democrats voted to table the measures.

Of course Democrats would love to see Trump gone, but the perils of impeachment are well-known.  President Clinton not only survived his impeachment but thrived, leaving the White House two years after his impeachment with a 66% approve rating.  (And had Al Gore chosen to deploy Clinton on the campaign trail in 2000, rather than shelve him, it is entirely possible that Gore would have won Florida outright and thus the presidency.)

Impeachment without bi-partisan support is a political loser.  Period.  End of sentence.  No one knows that better than Nancy Pelosi.  Even when the Mueller report left a clearly defined bread crumb trail to an obstruction of justice article of impeachment, Pelosi resisted.

And then, the day after Mueller’s ludicrously low energy testimony that nevertheless confirmed the salient impeachable details, Trump made his fateful phone call to President Zelensky of Ukraine.  The smoking gun that eluded Mueller was suddenly revealed by a whistleblower in an entirely new conspiracy to defraud the 2020 election.

We can only imagine Pelosi’s reaction to the whistleblower report when it became public in September, but perhaps it went something like this:  “Uh-oh.”  She could not have been happy.   Having warded off the impeachment hawks with Mueller, she now faced an ever growing pro-impeachment wing of her caucus.  When seven freshman Democratic reps, each with military backgrounds, each serving in Trump districts, came out for impeachment, she had no choice but to sign on as well.

This show of moral righteousness is consistent with the Democrats modus operandi of “doing the right thing.”  Unfortunately, the GOP’s modus operandi is more along the lines of “do what it takes to win.”  (See:   Al Gore’s performance in the aftermath of the 2000 election, when he instructed his post-election-fiasco manager, former Secretary of State Warren Christopher, to seek a “fair” process for deciding the election.   George W. Bush told his lead, James Baker, simply to “win.”  Who won?  Also, see: Mitch McConnell’s decision to shelve Merritt Garland’s Senate confirmation process.  Fair?  No.  A winning outcome for conservatives?  No doubt.)

Once the impeachment inquiry was launched and it became abundantly clear that the Trump Administration was going to do the full stonewall, Pelosi was faced with a difficult choice.  Option A was to go for a quick impeachment on narrow grounds based on what was known about the Ukraine affair, with the Trump phone call itself seen as sufficient.  Option B was to gear up for a longer process, complete with court cases that, in time, might compel the most senior Trump officials – Mike Pompeo, John Bolton and Mick Mulvany – to testify.  That path, of course, would test the patience of an exhausted America, asking them to wait out another extended, divisive process.  And it would hinge on two uncertain outcomes:  that the conservative-slanting Supreme Court would rule in the Dems’ favor, and that the ensuing testimony from Trump’s inner circle would be damning enough to convict him, not a given by a long shot.  (It is certainly unlikely that Pompeo or Mulvany would throw Trump under the bus, and would instead use every trick in the book to avoid it; as for Bolton, he is as unpredictable as they come.)

What Pelosi saw was that while a protracted process might – might – yield more compelling evidence at some point, the Senate would likely acquit Trump.  And in the meantime, the drawn-out process would have overshadowed the 2020 election, the more direct way to dispose of him.  And worse, it might actually tip the scales in favor of Trump and risk the one thing the Democrats had to check him:  their majority in the House of Representatives.

So Pelosi opted for the short game.  The Democrats, quite shockingly, engineered a disciplined, efficient and impressive impeachment process.  The Dems moved swiftly from evidence-gathering depositions from courageous senior Trump Administration officials (who bucked the stonewalling orders), through impactful public testimony by those officials to the House Intelligence Committee that highlighted the most salient and spectacular evidence from those depositions (and even threw in a new bombshell or two).  In December, the committee issued its report, the Judiciary Committee took over, heard evidence from the constitutional scholars who endorsed impeachment, and wrapped up the vote on the two articles of impeachment.  Soup to nuts it took only three months.

The Democrats surely considered a third article of impeachment, for obstruction of justice, harkening back to the Mueller Report.  But just as surely, Pelosi saw that it was a sure loser, and might not even carry the majority.  Mueller was simply too tough a vote for those swing district Dem reps, and Pelosi was not going to risk either an article going down, or further damage to vulnerable Dems.  This was another smart, disciplined call.

Trump and the GOP relentlessly attacked this process from beginning to end.  Abandoning hope of defending Trump, deflection was the GOP’s only hope to keep the base and the not-quite-sures from examining the actual record too closely.  In this, they were successful.  Trump’s approval rating was unchanged and support for impeachment rose briefly but then flatlined just short of a majority of the country.  And, importantly, the entire GOP caucus united, including Will Hurd, the moderate, and departing Texan, who was the best defection hope for the Dems.  Thus GOP representatives were able to invoke the ultimate in circular logic:  one of the main reasons why they said they were opposed to impeachment was, well, because not a single Republican was in favor of impeachment.  (Think about it.)

But while the GOP did themselves some political good, it came at some undefinable cost.  The GOP members of the House – almost entirely comprised of older white men -- made their case to the viewing public in a nearly uniform wild-eyed ranting style, never addressing the substance of the charges, and rarely speaking in a civil tone.  The Democrats, on the other hand, far more representative of America in gender, ethnic and racial composition, calmly and soberly presented their constitutional arguments.  Doug Collins, the GOP’s ranking member of the Judiciary Committee, seemed to believe that the faster he spoke, the better his argument.  His counterpart, the oft-reviled Democratic Chair Adam Schiff, on the other hand, responded calmly and effectively in eviscerating to every silly GOP ranting point, maintaining both his dignity and occasional sense of humor.

There was only one party traveling the high road that day. 

Image result for trump impeached ny times headlineSo the Dems were tidy in wrapping up their work, and the game plan was executed right on time.  The ayes had it on December 18th (along party lines, save for a few defecting Democrats), the historic banner headlines blazed the next day (“TRUMP IMPEACHED”), and all that was left was for the Senate to go through the motions in January, acquit their man, and for all to get on with 2020.  Trump and McConnell made peace on the trial process, Trump deferring to the Senate leader in opting for a short trial, rather than the longer spectacle Trump wanted to best tell his tale.

And with that Pelosi was left with the same reality she had faced all along:  that impeachment, while morally required, was a political albatross.  There is little doubt the Democrats were politically damaged in the process.  Consider head-to-head polling pitting Trump versus each of his three main rivals (Joe Biden, Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren).  On average the three were trouncing Trump in the early fall, by +8 points.  But in November and December, with the impeachment proceedings in full swing, that margin was halved.

National Head-to-Head Polls Big Three Dems Versus Trump

Avg. Big Three *
Trump
Diff.
Nov/Dec
49
45
4
Sep/Oct
51
43
8
 * Biden, Sanders, Warren

And if that chart is not concerning enough, this next one should positively frighten you.  Over the last six weeks of the year, as the Democrats ran the public phase of the impeachment process, Trump has flipped his swing state standing, and now carries a modest lead against the Dems leading candidates.

Swing State* Head-to-Head Polls Big Three Dems Versus Trump

Avg. Big Three **
Trump
Diff.
Nov 15 - Dec 1
45
47
-2
Oct 1 - Nov 15
48
45
3
 * AZ, FL, GA, IA, ME, MICH, MINN, NC, NV, OH, PA, TX,WI
 ** Biden, Sanders, Warren

Faced with this reality, one might think that Pelosi would have carried on with her plan, zipping the articles over the Senate and hoping it was all behind everyone in time for the Iowa caucuses on February 3rd.

But…but…but wait!  Pelosi let it drop at her post-vote news conference that she might not send the articles over to the Senate after all.  Her take on the Senate trial?  “So far we haven’t seen anything that looks fair to us.”  And with that gambit, suddenly the “pre-ordained” path became a bit less certain.

But what was Pelosi’s gambit?  What does she want?  Back to that soon.  First let’s finish the month.

The House passage of the USMCA might strike some as odd.  Why give Trump a win, and a trade win at that, one that on the surface (and who would go deeper?) seems to validate his oft-stated claim that U.S. trade deals were terrible?  From Pelosi’s perspective, USMCA accomplishes two goals.  First, the legislation – which is, by all reports, is simply NAFTA redux, with a different acronym and slightly better labor protections – gives moderate Democrats representatives a legislative triumph to show back home.  And second, it demonstrates that the Democrats can conduct important business while impeachment is underway, undercutting another GOP talking point.  (Keep in mind that GOP conservatives are deeply unhappy with USMCA, though choosing not to buck Trump publicly on it.)

In reading the details of the Budget package, one has to marvel again at the re-shaping of the GOP in Trump’s image.  The GOP, once the home of deficit and debt hawks, now supports a Budget that inches the federal deficit toward $1 trillion, and continues a trend that goes back to Reagan – every GOP president has increased the deficit after a Democrat president reduced it (or, in Bill Clinton’s case, eliminated it entirely).  And the debt – which Trump once promised to eliminate in his eight years of office – continues to soar to record levels under him.

The month also featured the long-awaited Justice Department Inspector General Michael Horowitz’s report on FBI conduct in the initial phases of the Russia investigation, finding plenty of sloppiness but no politically motivated bias on the part of FBI leadership.  This position once again undercut GOP claims, and both Attorney General William Barr and his appointed special investigator John Dunham (who is also investigating the origins of the Russia investigation) both publicly disagreed with the conclusions.  And thus the DOJ, long viewed as one of the least partisan government departments, finds itself in a losing fight for independence, in a battle with its own nominal leader.

The economy continues its strong performance, adding 266,000 jobs in the month while unemployment dropped to 3.5%.  Trump badly needs another 10 months of economic strength as the bulwark of his reelection bid.

The month, and the year, ended on ominous notes on the international front.  Trump was able to give the stalled China talks at least the appearance of progress with the announcement of a “Phase 1” agreement (which basically only avoided the looming threat of more tariffs; there was no progress on the underlying issues).  But two other events completely overshadowed that news.

First came the storming of the U.S. Embassy compound in Baghdad by Iraqi’s screaming “Death to America”, immediately calling to mind uncomfortable memories of both the 1980 hostage taking in Teheran and the 2012 attack on the U.S. Embassy in Benghazi.  The Iraqi’s were protesting an American air raid that killed 24 members of an Iranian-based militia, which itself was a response to an attack by that militia that resulted in the death of a U.S. contractor.  Trump’s next call will be a decision to either seek to calm tensions or rather escalate them.  Not a happy choice for the stable genius, who dislikes shows of weakness but desperately wants to avoid any Middle East hostilities.  Not the first time a U.S. president has found himself, in the overused phrase, between Iraq and a hard place.

And then came the announcement by Kim Jong-un that North Korea would no longer limit its development of nuclear and ballistic missiles, essentially driving the final nail into Trump’s attempts to de-nuclearize North Korea.

Trump months always include events that are so bizarre that we have created a “madness” category as a standing feature of our BTRTN Month in Reviews.  And this month, there was Rudy Giuliani, in Ukraine, of all places, still pressing the locals on investigating the Bidens, and commanding an audience with Trump upon his return.  The Giuliani trip occurred while the impeachment process, instigated largely by, well, Giuliani pressing the local on investigating the Bidens, was in full bore.  Imagine if, at the height of the Ervin Committee’s investigation, James McCord and G. Gordon Liddy went back to the Watergate to rifle through Larry O’Brien’s files yet again.  That’s the analogy.


WHAT IS PELOSI UP TO?

Nancy Pelosi is a master of three-dimensional chess.  Her decision to hold off on transmitting the articles of impeachment to the Senate is a classic case.

Pelosi sized up the state of the Senate trial and saw that it was a sham.  Mitch McConnell was cool to Chuck Schumer’s call for witnesses, and publicly cozied up to Trump team to organize the rules of the trial.  Pelosi’s quick calculus was that McConnell had erred.  He clearly should have taken greater pains to give the appearance of taking the high road in conducting a fair trial, and not been so public in his White House partnership. 

And the truth is, a trial without witnesses is not a good look.  Americans – even a plurality of Republicans -- clearly want to see witnesses (polling data courtesy of Morning Consult).


So Pelosi pounced with the announcement to hold off on transmitting the articles.  (Laurence Tribe pitched the idea to Pelosi a while back.)  While Pelosi surely figured the ploy was a long shot to actually influence the nature of the trial, it was a low risk way of putting pressure on both Mitch McConnell and moderate GOP Senators.  And, after facing months of GOP trashing of her impeachment process, it was a way to fight back.  Low risk, because the holiday break ensured that nothing would happen until January anyway, so for several weeks at least the dialogue would now shift to the one-sided GOP sham trial.

McConnell can have free reign to set the rules of the trial if he can manage to secure 51 votes in his favor.  Since his party only holds 53 seats, if he loses three GOP Senators, McConnell loses control of the process.  And while defections seem very unlikely in terms of convicting Trump, there may be more sympathy to adhering to a process that appears to be fair.  Remember when Jeff Flake held up the Kavanaugh nomination for a week so that the FBI had time to investigate some of the charges?  It was still a sham (the FBI did very little in that week, and far from an exhaustive investigation), but it looked better.

There are any number of GOP Senators to whom the notion of witnesses may appeal, with varying motives.  Mitt Romney has been a thorn in Trump’s side and is virtually untouchable in Utah.  Susan Collins of Maine is in a daunting re-election battle, as is Cory Gardner of Colorado and Thom Tillis of North Carolina.  Ben Sasse of Nebraska can be a gadfly, and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska has already expressed discomfort with the McConnell approach.

New evidence has emerged that is fueling the call for a “real” trial, including emails that show the Ukraine aid was put on hold just 90 minutes after the Trump/Zelensky call; of an August meeting in which Pompeo, Bolton and Secretary of Defense Mark Esper pleaded to Trump to release the aid, and being refused; and of Mulvany emailing aides asking if the Ukraine aid can be withheld has also emerged. 

The clock ticking over the holiday season has little consequence, but that will change this Friday when the Senate returns to business.  Pelosi will have to decide at some point exactly how long she intends to keep stalling.  The Murkowski statement was encouraging, but should not be read as yet as a call for witnesses.  And Susan Collins’ statement has excited some Dems, who should calm down – it basically is right in line with McConnell’s current view, which is that he is open-minded to witnesses but only if the decision is made after the process begins (that is, when he has full control).

McConnell could simply sit on his hands – he has laughed off the leverage argument since impeachment is “not something I want anyway.”  But there is the Trump factor.  Trump clearly is eager for the trial, even in truncated form, so that he can declare victory.  No trial, no vindication, no exoneration, no victory.  He could pressure McConnell at some point to cut a deal with Pelosi.

Might Pelosi simply hold on to the articles, perhaps forever?  That seems far-fetched, but she clearly is a better chess player than Trump.  It was just a year ago that she crushed him on his 35-day government shutdown over border wall funding.  She can school him again.

But even if she gives in relatively soon, she has accomplished a few important objectives, casting doubt on McConnell’s trial and calling attention to the latest Ukraine revelations.  All this helps her most vulnerable caucus members, those in the Trump districts.  Anything that discredits Trump gives them more bullet points for the folks back home who are wavering.

But the pressure will ratchet up next week.  A low-risk move in December becomes a high-stakes gamble in January.


TRUMP APPROVAL RATING

Through the historic impeachment month, Trump’s approval rating barely moved, and averaged 44% for the month.  This is the 24th consecutive month that his approval rating was in the 40-45% range.  Impeachment?  When it comes to Trump, everyone’s mind is made up.

TRUMP MONTHLY APPROVAL RATING

2017
2018
2019

Jan
Jun
Jan
Jun
J
F
M
A
M
J
J
A
S
O
N
D
Approve
45
40
41
42
42
41
42
42
43
43
43
43
44
43
43
44
Disappr.
44
55
55
53
54
55
54
54
54
54
54
53
53
55
55
54
Net
1
-15
-13
-10
-12
-14
-11
-12
-11
-12
-11
-10
-9
-13
-12
-10

Having said that, there is a bit of nuance, and it was in Trump’s favor.  Trump’s “strongly approve” rating jumped from 23% to 28%, even though his overall approval rating remained stagnant. 

And despite the rise in the “strongly approve” subset, that group remains far smaller than the “strong disapprove” subset, which remained in the low 40% range (43% this month).  In other words, there are far more people who essentially despise Trump than love him, and it is the difference in that intensity on which the Dems are pinning their 2020 hopes, with good reason.

APPROVAL RATING INTENSITY
2019
Aug
Sep
Oct
Nov
Dec
Strongly Approval
24
23
23
23
28
Somewhat/lean approve
18
19
19
20
16
Somewhat/lean disapprove
13
13
13
12
10
Strongly disapprove
43
39
44
42
43
Not sure
2
5
1
3
2
Source: Ipsos/Reuters among registered voters


ON IMPEACHMENT

In the month that Trump was actually impeached, there was barely a ripple in the percentage of Americans who support impeachment versus not.  America remains divided on the subject, 48/46, with 82% of Democrats supporting, versus only 10% of Republicans.  The independents fall squarely in the middle at 42%, down a bit from the prior months.

VIEWS ON IMPEACHMENT
2019
Mar
Apr
May
Jun
Jul
Aug
Sep
Oct
Nov
Dec
Support
45
37
39
39
38
39
47
48
49
48
Don't Support
45
54
50
52
51
53
46
44
44
46











Support among
Mar
Apr
May
Jun
Jul
Aug
Sep
Oct
Nov
Dec
Democrats
66
63
70
69
67
70
79
84
84
82
Independents
33
31
33
35
33
34
43
46
45
42
Republicans
10
8
10
9
8
9
12
11
12
10
Source:  FiveThirtyEight







GENERIC BALLOT

The generic ballot continues to favor the Democrats by a wide margin.  If this +7 differential was the margin on Election Day, our BTRTN model indicates the Dems could pick up 15-20 additional seats and hold an even more dominant position in the House.  Thus far the impeachment divide has not influenced this particular data point.

GENERIC BALLOT

2019
Jun
Jul
Aug
Sep
Oct
Nov
Dec
Democrats
45
46
47
47
47
47
48
Republicans
39
38
38
39
39
39
41
Net Margin
7
8
9
8
7
7
7


TRUMPOMETER

The Trumpometer improved just a tad from November to December, from +13 to +14.  The +14 Trumpometer reading means that, on average, our five economic measures are +14% higher than they were at the time of Trump’s Inauguration, per the chart below (and with more explanation of methodology below).  The increase in the Trumpometer was driven by a roughly 500-point (2%) rise in the Dow, and a slight decline in the unemployment rate from 3.6% to 3.5%.  The other measures were virtually unchanged. 

The “Trumpometer” was designed to provide an objective answer to the legendary economically-driven question at the heart of the 1980 Reagan campaign:  “Are you better off than you were four years ago?”  The Trumpometer now stands at +14, which means that Donald Trump can definitively claim that the answer to that question is “yes.”  (Whether he deserves credit for that score is another matter.)


Clinton
Bush
Obama
Trump
TRUMPOMETER
End Clinton  1/20/2001
End Bush 1/20/2009
End Obama 1/20/2017 (Base = 0)
Trump 11/30/2019
Trump 12/31/2019
% Chg. Vs. Inaug. (+ = Better)
Trumpometer
25
-53
0
13
14
14%







  Unemployment Rate
4.2
7.8
4.7
3.6
3.5
26%
  Consumer Confidence
129
38
114
126
127
11%
  Price of Gas
1.27
1.84
2.44
2.67
2.66
-9%
  Dow Jones
10,588
8,281
19,732
28,051
28,538
45%
  GDP
4.5
-6.2
2.1
2.1
2.1
0%

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Notes on methodology:

BTRTN calculates our monthly approval ratings using an average of the four pollsters who conduct daily or weekly approval rating polls: Gallup Rasmussen, Reuters/Ipsos and You Gov/Economist. This provides consistent and accurate trending information and does not muddy the waters by including infrequent pollsters.  The outcome tends to mirror the RCP average but, we believe, our method gives more precise trending.

For the generic ballot (which is not polled in this post-election time period), we take an average of the only two pollsters who conduct weekly generic ballot polls, Reuters/Ipsos and You Gov/Economist, again for trending consistency.

The Trumpometer aggregates a set of economic indicators and compares the resulting index to that same set of aggregated indicators at the time of the Trump Inaugural on January 20, 2017, on an average percentage change basis... The basic idea is to demonstrate whether the country is better off economically now versus when Trump took office.  The indicators are the unemployment rate, the Dow-Jones Industrial Average, the Consumer Confidence Index, the price of gasoline, and the GDP. 




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