Welcome to FiveThirtyEight’s weekly politics chat. The transcript below has been lightly edited.
sarahf (Sarah Frostenson, politics editor): On Wednesday, the House Judiciary Committee is scheduled to vote on whether to hold Attorney General William Barr in contempt of Congress for his failure to comply with a congressional subpoena that required he turn over special counsel Robert Mueller’s full, unredacted report on Russian interference in the 2016 election, as well as the underlying evidence.
Democrats are also calling for Mueller to testify before Congress. But impeachment proceedings remain off the table. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has repeatedly said that move would be too risky for Democrats looking to defeat President Trump in 2020.
In general, Pelosi’s playbook has gone something like this: 1) Do not get involved in a political fight over impeachment because the Republican-controlled Senate will never convict Trump and 2) Do not alienate the moderate wing of the party by drifting too far to the left on policy.
So what do you think? Is Pelosi’s gambit right?
Let’s start with her post-Mueller report strategy. Is going after Barr instead of the president the right move?
perry (Perry Bacon Jr., senior writer): I find this all a bit too clever. Yes, Barr misled Congress by suggesting that he didn’t know if Mueller had any concerns about Barr’s four-page summary of Mueller’s report. (Mueller had in fact written a letter to Barr laying out his concerns with the summary.) Yes, Congress wants the unredacted Mueller report. But what is the point of Joe Biden, Kamala Harris, and other 2020 candidates and congressional Democrats calling for Barr to resign? He is not resigning, and even if he did, Trump would pick a different attorney general to do his bidding.
It seems to me like a clear case of “we are too weak/scared/unwilling to take on the president directly, so we will take on this underling.”
ameliatd (Amelia Thomson-DeVeaux, senior writer): Right. Going after Barr does not accomplish much in the short term or the long term. Democrats can vote to hold him in contempt, but the Justice Department is responsible for enforcing the contempt charge, which means that Barr would have to sign off on his own prosecution.
julia_azari (Julia Azari, political science professor at Marquette University and FiveThirtyEight contributor): This is the problem with the executive branch in general. It has to execute stuff.
Me and my Ph.D. in political science will be here all day.
But I am serious about this. Our system isn’t super well-equipped to deal with problems in the executive branch.
sarahf: Yeah, it definitely seems as if we’re in a situation where Congress is running out of good options. Arguably, even holding Barr in contempt is more of a political move than anything else.
nrakich (Nathaniel Rakich, elections analyst): I am not sure what to make of the Barr stuff. Maybe it will rile up Republicans, while Democrats will see it as a weak half-measure — in which case, it’s not smart? But maybe it’ll be the other way around and be seen as a sensible compromise among Democrats?
julia_azari: It’s not unreasonable for Democrats to dial down the theatrics and push on Barr in a way that is a big deal among “Washington insiders” or people who follow this stuff closely but doesn’t engage the larger electorate.
perry: If the goal is half-measures, the Barr approach is a good one. Pelosi can pretend to confront Trump without actually doing so — by attacking Barr, asking for Mueller to testify and demanding the full, unredacted report.
ameliatd: The advantage of holding Barr in contempt is that it signals that the Democrats are continuing to take the Trump administration’s refusal to comply with their oversight seriously. And it buys them some time. But my question is … what are they buying time for?
perry: Exactly. I suppose they are buying time through all of the various requests for more testimony and documents from people like former White House Counsel Don McGahn, who was one of the key witnesses in Mueller’s report.
But, eventually, that time runs out.
The options for Democrats, as I see them, are: 1) impeach, 2) censure and 3) do nothing.
nrakich: Don’t Democrats want to buy time until the election?
ameliatd: The problem is they don’t have many weapons beyond contempt. If the Trump administration continues to shrug off Democrats’ efforts, then they basically have to either impeach Barr or impeach Trump. It seems like there’s no stick big enough to make the administration cooperate.
nrakich: To Perry’s point, I think a censure is an underrated third path.
sarahf: Well, OK, say that Democrats get Mueller or McGahn to testify. What would they stand to gain from that?
perry: The testimony will make Trump look bad. And it will help stall the part of the Democratic base that wants impeachment.
ameliatd: But I still don’t get what the long game is. It’ll be very hard for Democrats to keep the public focused on this for the next 18 (?) months without talking more about impeachment.
perry: And what more is there to learn? Mueller put out a 400-page report. I don’t think his testimony will be groundbreaking. Let’s say that Mueller says Barr forced a premature end to the investigation. How surprising would it really be?
julia_azari: The Democrats are sort of stuck between what adhering to some of the practices of rule of law demand and what makes electoral sense.
ameliatd: This is the perpetual challenge for Trump’s opponents — nothing is surprising! Which makes it hard to weaponize the Trump administration’s actions.
So this is interesting. Pelosi’s argument is that Trump is trying to goad Democrats into impeachment because it would fire up Republicans and backfire on Democrats in 2020. Pelosi is claiming that she sees the trick — and she won’t fall for it. But what if there is no trick!? Trump has always behaved as though he is above the law — even before he was president.
Also, Trump’s base is already pretty solidly behind him already.
nrakich: Maybe that’s a convenient way for Pelosi to excuse herself from impeaching Trump? “If we do it, we’d be doing exactly what he wants us to do!”
ameliatd: I do think it’s fair to ask what the Democrats’ options are, beyond what they’re doing now. They really are stuck between a rock and a hard place. If they drop their demands for the unredacted Mueller report, they look weak. But if they go after Barr and still can’t get the full Mueller report, they look weak. It goes back to what Julia was saying — our system is really not set up to handle an executive branch that stonewalls Congress across the board.
sarahf: And most Americans don’t seem to want impeachment. A Washington Post/ABC News poll conducted last month found that 56 percent of Americans think Congress should not begin impeachment proceedings against Trump, and that’s a 10-point increase from August.
julia_azari: Americans’ aversion to impeachment is pretty interesting. I noted in this piece that even though people thought Bill Clinton had lied, they didn’t support removing him from office.
I got some feedback from readers that the Trump situation would be different, which I think was logical, but so far, that has turned out to be wrong.
nrakich: I continue to believe that impeaching Trump is a political risk that Democrats don’t need to take. (It could hurt them politically in the 2020 election, and the GOP majority in the Senate means they’ll never remove him from office anyway.) But another thing I’ve been thinking about is that there might not be enough votes to impeach Trump in the House. I don’t really see any of the moderate/vulnerable Democrats voting for it?
perry: I tend to think public opinion is malleable — as are votes in Congress. If the Democratic leadership embraced impeachment, it would be hard for most Democratic members to be against it. All but five Republicans voted for one of the articles of impeachment against Bill Clinton in the 1990s — even while it was clear the public didn’t want it. Dissenting was difficult once that became the Republican Party’s position. If every leading Democrat embraced impeachment, that might shift the polls.
ameliatd: The upside of impeachment hearings, for the Democrats, is that it would be easier to get documents and testimony. So if they really want to put on a political show, that’s one way to do it.
sarahf: So one thing that I don’t understand about Pelosi’s stance on impeachment is that even as she categorically rules it out, she also tries to occupy this space where she suggests maybe she’s not that opposed, and instead says she doesn’t want to talk about impeachment because that’s what Trump wants the Democrats to do. The whole reason Pelosi has said she’s opposed to impeachment is because she’d rather Democrats work with the administration to pick up some bipartisan legislative wins, like an infrastructure bill or drug-pricing legislation, but I’m not sure that’s really happening. Doesn’t the ongoing fight over the Mueller report overshadow or undermine these efforts?
perry: It’s like Democrats are doing “impeachment lite,” which doesn’t actually put the hammer on Trump and keeps keep everyone talking about the investigations but doesn’t offer any resolution.
Do a censure and then move on.
That seems to me like the logical path — a carefully written censure can get 218 votes, and then you can move on from Russia and Mueller.
ameliatd: I’m also not convinced that focusing on Barr and Mueller is the best use of Democrats’ energy. Public opinion seems very set on the Mueller report. But the Democrats are investigating all kinds of other things — including Trump’s finances. It seems like if they want to keep the investigations going, that might be a better place to focus.
julia_azari: I agree with Perry about the path to censure. But, in my opinion, the question that underlies a lot of this is whether there are any paths to “good politics.” The country is polarized, the president is not playing by the rules, and he has a very strong base. What kind of path really exists?
perry: Pelosi seems to think that talking about health care and policy issues is better than talking about Russia and impeachment.
So I think “good politics” in her view means talking about other issues.
nrakich: I do think the midterms showed the potency of health care and other bread-and-butter issues.
perry: Even on immigration, Trump’s views are fairly unpopular.
nrakich: But part of me also wonders what would happen if Democrats ran the Mitt Romney playbook against Trump in 2020, especially with someone like Biden or Sanders leading the Democratic ticket.
julia_azari: What is the Romney playbook?
nrakich: Trump is a rich businessman who cheated on his taxes, exploited offshore tax havens, sides with billionaires over the little guy, etc.
There might be more fodder for that in the investigation of Trump’s finances, so that investigation might prove more politically beneficial.
perry: But we already have all the evidence you need for that.
Voters already know Trump did weird stuff with the Russia investigation, probably doesn’t pay his fair share of taxes and has shady business deals — people have won Pulitzers covering Trump’s finances.
nrakich: Right, but coupled with that kind of electoral strategy, the investigations into Trump’s finances wouldn’t look like overreach.
Like, the Russia card seems played out, but that card seems barely played at all.
“several people are typing” 😬
julia_azari: I’m on the fence about your theory of 2012, Nathaniel. As the resident “fundamentalist,” I think it’s pretty likely the election will be close if current conditions hold. So something like a populist anti-businessman strategy could make the difference, but Democrats would probably be better off getting different constituencies to turn out or focusing on keeping the suburbs blue.
ameliatd: So is there any benefit to the political theater aspect of these investigations, if the public already knows all of these things about Trump?
nrakich: The public may already know these things about Trump, but the election hasn’t been framed around them.
I think it might have worked out better for Democrats if they had painted Trump as an out-of-touch billionaire.
Although your point is well taken, Julia.
sarahf: But setting aside Romney’s playbook, is Pelosi right in distancing party leadership from some of the most ambitious plans advocated by the left wing of her party? And instead focusing on the issues Democrats won on in 2018, i.e. health care? Perry wrote about this last week — why is the “Super Progressive” bloc of the party losing to the House leadership, or at least not gaining traction, when it puts forward big policy ideas like “Medicare for All” and the Green New Deal? But is this a winning strategy for 2020?
ameliatd: The other issue is that Trump is also stonewalling on his tax returns and financial statements. So even with the Democrats focusing there, he’s basically trying to run out the clock until the election.
perry: And he will succeed.
Which is why I find this whole tax returns thing not a very interesting story. Trump will not release his taxes — he should, but he has the power not to.
julia_azari: My first reaction to the Pelosi statements about strategy is that we are in a moment where ideological labels mean nothing. Pelosi the leader of the center? WTF?
I think Democratic strategies (and all strategies probably) come down to two different ways of thinking about the map. You can think of it as a sort of “median voter” approach, which would be trying to win a majority of the nation and hope that translates into an Electoral College win or focusing on “swing states” and making assumptions about what Midwestern voters want.
That approach usually leads Democrats — and Republicans, to an extent — to tack to the center on policy or pick “safe” candidates.
Alternately, you can move away from the “national majorities” idea altogether. The second approach is to think of parties as coalitions to mobilize, and fairly patchwork ones at that.
perry: I think the broader question is if Democrats should run a fairly bland, safe campaign on policy (say, defending the Affordable Care Act, pushing back on separating children from their families at the border and attacking Trump on ideas like getting rid of Obamacare’s protections for people with pre-existing medical conditions), or be bolder on policy, like Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders have been doing in their 2020 campaigns. My thoughts are twofold: The first option is probably safer and maybe marginally better electorally, but if Republicans are going to run ads linking Joe Biden or the other centrist candidates to more liberal ideas anyway, is the safe choice really better if the Democrats think the more liberal ideas are better policy?
nrakich: I think Pelosi may have a slightly different agenda than Democrats in general or, to be more specific, than those running to be the Democratic presidential nominee. Pelosi’s majority in the House is much more clearly built on these moderate suburban districts. Ergo, Pelosi is probably right that it’s safer for those Democratic members to not have to run on a platform that supports Medicare for All or the Green New Deal.
But to win a presidential election, the math might be different. Maybe it is better to really get the base excited.
That said, I kind of think the base will be motivated to vote no matter what — hatred (and the desire to get Trump out of office) is a powerful motivator.
sarahf: Although Democrats are reportedly losing their voter enthusiasm edge over Republicans.
julia_azari: A different way of thinking about this is whether there’s a risk for Democrats in seeming too focused on Trump. Can I beat the dead horse of the Romney example? I mean, Republicans were pretty united against Obama, too, but it wasn’t enough to defeat an incumbent president in decent economic times.
ameliatd: I do think the Democrats need to excite voters about something other than beating Trump. It’s just not clear to me at this point if that can be Medicare for All.
On the other hand, maybe it’s worth the gamble. The idea that the best response to Trump is to play it safe seems like it could really backfire.
sarahf: Nathaniel’s point that Pelosi may be waging a different game strategy than what the 2020 Democratic contenders are doing is an interesting one, and maybe another reason why so many have them have been vocal in calling for Barr’s resignation or Trump’s impeachment.
perry: I think Pelosi would be fine calling for Barr’s resignation.
It’s kind of a non-position (he is not resigning) and another opportunity for Democrats to stall.
Only a few Democrats have called for impeachment proceedings against Trump.
julia_azari: I think among the Democratic candidates and other party leaders, it isn’t just a matter of whether to endorse impeachment, but of defining what it means to impeach a president and what it means to take that position. Is it a position of the far left of the party? Does it establishing you as a “rule of law” candidate? I think it’s unclear right now.
Because 200+ years of American history have not really answered those questions.
And now we have stark polarization, split chambers and a pretty unusual president.
perry: You are suggesting Democrats are thinking deeply about the history and merits of impeachment, but I don’t think they are. I would argue that some very liberal Democrats are in favor of impeachment and the rest of the party probably isn’t. Impeachment has the same dynamic as the Green New Deal: It’s another proxy for the fight between left and center-left Democrats.
And Pelosi’s stance on impeachment is similar to her approach to other issues that divide the party’s center-left from its left — arguing that impeachment is too politically risky.
sarahf: So I guess that’s kind of the question. Is Pelosi’s leadership of the Democratic Party — her decision not to impeach, not to move too far to the left — going to work for Democrats, at least in Congress? New York Times reporter Glenn Thrush wrote in a story on her leadership that she has embraced her role as “the only Democrat with the power to oppose” Trump. What do we make of that? Is that a convincing electability-style argument for Democrats in 2020?
nrakich: Pelosi can try to influence who the 2020 nominee is, but ultimately, he or she will set the tone for the 2020 election.
ameliatd: The big issue, I think, is that the House Democrats have to decide what they’re going to do about their relative lack of power, compared to the executive branch, and they may have to do that sooner rather than later. Pelosi can try to continue to stake out a middle ground, but they are running up against some big structural limitations — and I agree that impeachment lite is not a workable strategy in the long term.
It seems like the central challenge for Democrats is: Can you run on normalcy and basically treat Trump as an aberration? Or do you have to deal with the structural problems his presidency is exposing? The latter, of course, is incredibly hard to do.
From ABC News: