WASHINGTON — That rumbling you hear is from the fervent activists in the party’s base demanding that Democratic leaders press hard now to impeach President Trump. But the message coming back from the top is far more cautious: Just hang on folks.
Given how unlikely it is that the House Republican majority would approve articles of impeachment (no American president ever has been impeached when his own party controlled the House), the real political prize for Democrats is winning the House in 2018.
And making impeachment the major theme of 2018 elections is not a winning formula, at least not yet, in the view of party strategists.
Electing Democrats and flipping the House to Democratic control is the only way to provide a real check on Trump’s reckless ways, they argue. And the way to do that is by maintaining a focus on pocketbook issues, criticizing the Republican policy agenda, and, in swing districts, winning over some who voted for Trump in 2016 and may be turned off by strident talk of impeachment.
“We need to be looking at the issues that matter to families at home, and that starts with jobs, health care, addressing the opioid crisis,” said Representative Katherine Clark, the fiery lawmaker from Melrose who is among a new generation of Democratic leaders.
“We can file articles of impeachment, we very well may have a basis, but Republicans have shown they’re unwilling to criticize, to hold this president accountable,” Clark said. “Let’s mobilize, get to the streets, register voters, and change the majority in the House.”
Clark, who is her party’s second in command for recruiting candidates to challenge Republicans in individual House districts, added that she isn’t seeing the possibility of impeachment as a major motivation for potential challengers contemplating running in 2018.
“Of the hundreds of candidates that we have talked to,’’ she said, “not one of them is leading with impeachment.”
There’s an active debate within the Democratic Party about what to focus on in the election —
Moulton, who has been vocal in criticizing Trump, said he’s squarely in the camp that believes Democrats “need to have a vision for the country that’s a lot more than opposition to the president.”
But pressure from the activist base is building to put impeachment front and center after last week’s testimony from fired FBI director James Comey.
Comey told the Senate Intelligence Committee on Thursday that Trump sought a pledge of political loyalty from him and pressured him to drop investigations of former national security adviser Mike Flynn and into potential collusion between Trump campaign officials and Russians seeking to sway the election outcome. He said Trump fired him because he refused.
Trump denied the allegations Friday and said he is willing to deny them under oath in testimony before the special counsel, Robert Mueller, who has taken over the investigations. But Comey is a highly credible witness, and Thursday’s Senate hearing led many to conclude that Trump probably abused the power of his office and may even have obstructed justice, which would be a violation of federal law.
Two major grass-roots groups at the forefront of the Trump resistance movement — MoveOn.org and Indivisible — on Thursday called for Congress to begin impeachment proceedings.
“We are saying to Democrats and Republicans that our membership strongly supports impeaching this president for the shocking actions he has taken. We are calling on everyone to stand on the right side of history and support impeachment now,” Anna Galland, executive director of MoveOn Civic Action said in an interview with the Globe.
Activists in the Democratic base understand that Republicans are standing in the way of holding Trump accountable, she added, but “Democrats are not off the hook. They need to fight.”
Democrats must tend to this activist base, which they need to harness for election help if they want to win tough races.
But at this early stage, many party leaders contend, putting impeachment front and center in House races across the country would be a mistake. Most elected Democrats are proceeding with extreme caution, avoiding the word impeachment and in most cases refusing to straight-out accuse Trump of committing crimes.
Strategists say Democrats are right to tread a careful line. Focusing 2018 messaging on impeachment — at least at this early stage — runs the risk of getting ahead of public sentiment. Democrats are better served, they say, by talking up the Republican effort to replace the Affordable Care Act. Polls show the House-passed GOP bill, which would cause an estimated 23 million people to lose insurance, is highly unpopular with voters of all political stripes.
“Impeachment is so high-stakes that you have to be very careful moving forward with that,” said Karlyn Bowman, a public opinion analyst with the right-leaning American Enterprise Institute. “The waters are so muddy now, with Comey and Mueller, and the committees looking into that. I’d certainly focus on health care, where Republicans look very vulnerable.”
Priorities USA, a major Democratic super PAC, in a recent memo offering guidance on political messaging, cautioned Democrats against losing focus on health care. Trump’s ongoing crisis does not necessarily rub off on House Republicans, it said.
“The firing of James Comey and other concerns related to Russia are major liabilities for Trump himself, the health care issue plays a bigger role in dragging down Republicans in Congress,” the memo said. The group’s own tracking poll found that a bigger share of voters express concern over the GOP health care bill (47 percent) than Republican foot-dragging on investigating the president (35 percent).
America just voted in Trump mere months ago, said Jim Manley, a Democratic consultant and former aide to Senate majority leader Harry Reid, and no matter the flood of scandals, that’s important to remember.
“I understand the frustration that many in the base feel,” Manley said. “But we need to know a lot more before we go down that dangerous and difficult path. Let’s just urge everyone to wait and see.”
One Republican strategist involved in defending vulnerable Republican congressional seats said if Democrats embraced impeachment as a 2018 issue, they could easily be painted as extreme, out-of-touch liberals, particularly in the swing districts that Democrats need to win to take the House.
“Everyone already knows they don’t like Trump. At some point they’re going to have to get an agenda and be for something if they’re going to be serious about winning elections,” the GOP strategist said.
The hot special-election contest for Georgia’s Sixth Congressional District, which has been in conservative hands for close to four decades, is a case study for Democrats. Democratic candidate Jon Ossoff has a solid chance of winning in the June 20 special election.
Ossoff rarely mentions Trump, or the fact that he himself is a Democrat. The word impeachment is not in his campaign repertoire.
Ossoff’s supporters don’t mind that their candidate is not calling for Trump’s head.
“In this race, [Ossoff] getting elected isn’t going to get Trump impeached. That’d be great, but it isn’t going to happen,” said Katie Landsman, as she canvassed a tree-filled Marietta subdivision for Ossoff on Wednesday.
Standing next to her car in a neighbor’s driveway, the day’s Russia-related congressional hearing playing on the earphones around her neck, Gail McTiernan agreed. A self-described liberal, she told Landsman she plans to vote for Ossoff.
“Of course, it’s on my mind,” McTiernan said of impeachment, “but I know it’s not reality” because Congress is too partisan. Plus, she and her husband — who voted for Trump but now regrets it — think Trump will resign before any impeachment proceedings get rolling.
“He’s going to implode,’’ she said. “He’s basically imploding now.”
Rick Wilson, a Florida-based Republican strategist, agrees with his Democratic peers that there’s not a solid enough case for impeachment yet for it to be anything but “an impractical revenge fantasy.”
But that doesn’t mean Trump’s Russia problem is without risk for Republicans in swing districts, most of whom are burying their heads in the sand, he said. “Republicans used to believe in the rule of law,” he said. “Now its like the rule of, ‘You haven’t caught him yet.’ ”Victoria McGrane can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @vgmac. Astead W. Herndon can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter@AsteadWH.