2020 Vision Tuesday: Three ways impeachment could reshape the Democratic primary

Andrew Romano
West Coast Correspondent
From left, Democratic presidential candidates Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg, Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., former Vice President Joe Biden, Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., entrepreneur Andrew Yang, former Texas Rep. Beto O'Rourke and former Housing Secretary Julian Castro are introduced for the Democratic presidential primary debate hosted by ABC on the campus of Texas Southern University, Sept. 12, 2019, in Houston. (Photo: Eric Gay/AP)

Welcome to 2020 Vision, the Yahoo News column covering the presidential race with one smart, fast takeaway every weekday and a deeper roundup every weekend. Reminder: There are 132 days until the Iowa caucuses and 406 days until the 2020 election.

After spending all weekend taking her caucus’s temperature on impeachment, and after a dozen additional Democratic lawmakers embraced an impeachment inquiry, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi met Tuesday with the six committee chairs investigating President Trump and discussed a path forward. The full Democratic caucus then met Tuesday afternoon. And Pelosi, who until now has been wary of impeachment, later announced that the latest disclosures about Trump’s dealings with the government of Ukraine have led House Democrats to decide an impeachment inquiry is warranted.

So how will giving a green light to impeachment proceedings reshape the 2020 presidential campaign?

Here are three early possibilities.

Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts speaks in Washington on April 1. (Photo: Jose Luis Magana/AP)

Impeachment could boost the clearest pro-impeachment candidates. Back in April, with Democrats sharply divided over the implications of the recently released Mueller report, Elizabeth Warren became the first major presidential candidate to call for Trump’s impeachment. At the time, other Dems were saying things like “Impeachment should not be off the table” or “It’s up to the House.” Since then, various Democrats have staked out positions on all sides of the issue, with several (Kamala Harris, Beto O’Rourke) sounding as pro-impeachment as Warren and others (Biden, Pete Buttigieg, Bernie Sanders) largely sidestepping the topic.

For all of the candidates, clarity will be necessary — and it’s not hard to see how this shifting dynamic could boost someone like Warren.

Already, Warren is surging in the polls, passing Sanders for second place both nationally and in Iowa, where the first caucuses will be held in just a few months, and where she is tied with Biden for first.

Impeachment is unlikely to slow her momentum. This is not because rank-and-file Democrats will reward her for moving first on the issue; no one cares what you did in April 2019. Rather, it’s because her message — “corruption in Washington has allowed the rich and powerful to tilt the rules and grow richer and more powerful” and “Donald Trump is corruption in the flesh” — wouldn’t have to change.

Impeachment would be all about corruption, the central theme behind Warren’s campaign. The whole circus in Washington would amplify her argument in a way it wouldn’t for, say, Sanders (revolution!) Buttigieg (generational change!), or Biden (electability!).

Speaking of…

Former Vice President Joe Biden and President Trump. (Photos: Spencer Platt/Getty Images, Win McNamee/Getty Images)

Impeachment will put the spotlight on Biden — for better or worse. Before going any further, it’s worth repeating: Trump claims Biden threatened Ukraine to aid his son’s business interests. The facts say otherwise.

Even so, everyone remembers what happened in 2016, when Trump’s wild accusations about Hillary Clinton’s emails cannibalized her campaign — which is why Biden world is already waging an aggressive war to control the Ukraine narrative. No campaign wants the media to constantly equate debunked allegations about its candidate with actual impeachable offenses.

So will impeachment proceedings be bad news for Biden? Not necessarily. It’s clear that Trump’s Ukraine controversy has focused attention on the former vice president. According to Axios, stories about Joe Biden generated millions more interactions on social media than stories about any other 2020 Democrat last week, and of the 100 biggest stories about Biden over the same period — 65 percent of his 4.3 million interactions — 62 involved Ukraine.

All that engagement could be a good thing for Biden. As Axios reported, only 10 Ukraine-related stories framed him negatively. More broadly, going after Trump has galvanized Democrats into loudly defending Biden — a de facto dynamic that impeachment would only reinforce. And Trump’s attacks have transformed several news cycles into one big Trump-Biden showdown, giving Biden, who has framed his entire candidacy as the Democratic Party’s last best chance of defeating Trump, the opportunity to press his point.

But “opportunity” is the key word here. Impeachment could provide the president with a platform to further tar Biden. It will also provide Biden with a platform to fight back. The question is how well he fights.

Impeachment will suck up all the oxygen. On Tuesday, Sanders proposed an “extreme wealth tax” on the highest-income Americans, along with a “national wealth registry” that he said would help prevent them from avoiding it — his attempt to outflank Warren and regain momentum in the polls. Buttigieg toured Iowa aboard his own version of John McCain’s legendary Straight Talk Express. And the DNC raised its November debate threshold, which could further cull the field.

Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., speaks during a brief campaign stop at Town Clock Plaza in Dubuque, Iowa, on Monday. (Photo: Nicki Kohl/Telegraph Herald via AP)

Did you hear about any of those developments? Unless you’re a political junkie, probably not. For the last few days, the coverage has been all Ukraine, all the time.

Nothing consumes the media like a congressional trial meant to remove a president from office — not even a presidential campaign. In that sort of environment, it will be near impossible for Democratic candidates to cut through the noise and shake up the primary contest with, say, bus tours or policy proposals.

There are just 32 days left in session for the House this year. For that reason, Democrats are likely to move quickly with impeachment proceedings that could spill over into next year, which is when Democrats actually start voting in Iowa, New Hampshire and elsewhere. In other words, the final phase of the 2020 primary could be entirely dominated, even overshadowed, by impeachment. The candidate who survives will be the one who figures out how to turn that unprecedented challenge to his or her advantage.

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