Before last week, calling for the impeachment of Donald Trump worked well for many of the Democrats vying for the presidential nomination in 2020. It was a way of standing out, at least a little. But now impeachment is real, and Democrats have fallen in line, which makes it hard to carve out a niche. This is one of the most important stretches of campaign season, when each Democrat has to stand out from the rest, yet on impeachment their opinions must be like shades of green in a paint catalog—distinctive only to the sort of consumer who insists on Sweet Grass over Fragrant Spruce. That makes the latest developments both an opportunity and a headache. So far, we’re seeing a subtle but noteworthy spectrum of impeachment ardor among 2020 Democrats, with support that runs from lukewarm to fiery. Everyone’s position has required careful calculation. So let’s put aside considerations of right and wrong and assess the cruder question of up or down.
If we start with “down,” we must go to Joe Biden. He is already sinking in the polls, and he needs something to reverse his momentum. In an ideal world, that would be an incident of heroism similar to Cory Booker rescuing a dog from the cold with TV crews conveniently on hand, but even something far less swashbuckling would do, provided it was arresting and positive. By contrast, having the focus be on Hunter Biden’s cushy gig with Ukrainian company Burisma or his work with places that, as the New York Times carefully phrases it, have “overlapped with his father’s footprint in government,” well, that’s not helpful. Biden would always have shown more restraint than his rivals in his statements on Trump’s impeachment—it’s in his nature—but having himself and his son entangled in the matter can only be an additional dampener.
In public, Democrats are closing ranks around Biden. To do anything else would amount to siding with Trump, the real offender. But they’re already finding themselves tripped up by Biden’s troubles. Last Wednesday, when Elizabeth Warren was asked by a reporter if her ethics rules would allow the son of her vice president to serve on the board of a foreign company, she answered, “No,” and then, “I don’t, I don’t, I don’t know, I mean, I’d have to go back and look.” A few days later, Kamala Harris got a similar question and answered “Probably not,” and then, “I think that the problem we’ve got, again, with this issue, is that it’s a distraction from the fact that—look, as far as I’m concerned, leave Joe Biden alone,” before shifting to Trump. We’ll see more of this sort of thing. Of course, many journalists will point out why implying any equivalence between the actions of Biden and Trump is unfounded, but that won’t stop Trump and his allies from harping on it. Nor, for many much-debated reasons, will the public leap to believe the press over the president.
That’s to say nothing of what will be happening behind the scenes. For now, as long as Biden keeps sinking on his own and Warren keeps rising, his rivals will have his back in public and in private. If he leaps up to front place once more, however, then we can expect the campaigns of Biden’s rivals to start whispering to journalists and donors and anyone else who will listen that Biden is too compromised on the Hunter Biden issue to withstand the noise that Trump will unleash against him. Biden’s fall would open potential lanes for several other middle-of-the-road candidates, Pete Buttigieg and Kamala Harris in particular, or even a wild card candidate like Andrew Yang. But it might also result in a divvying of spoils by Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders, who are delaying any blatant break with one another, albeit with increasing difficulty.