House Democrats are sounding alarms that a prolonged fight for their party’s presidential nomination will only serve to bolster President Donald Trump’s reelection prospects, as many in their party grow anxious in the aftermath of his impeachment trial.
Democrats still believe their party will ultimately unite and get behind a candidate who will take back the White House. But a series of events this week, including the debacle in the Iowa caucuses, the strong jobs report and the near-total GOP loyalty to Trump during the impeachment fight have some saying their party needs to wake up to the reality that Trump stands a strong chance of winning again.
“I think Iowa made nobody happy – everybody is ready to move on. New Hampshire is next week and we are moving forward,” said Rep. Debbie Dingell, a Michigan Democrat. She added: “He can win again … I’ve been saying it for a while.”
“We shouldn’t underestimate him,” said Rep. Ro Khanna, a California Democrat and Bernie Sanders supporter. “Only eight American incumbent presidents have ever lost. It’s always a challenge to defeat an American president. But he has a lot of glaring weaknesses.”
While Democrats hope to exploit those weaknesses, they recognize that this week’s events underscore the tall task ahead. The problems with the Iowa caucuses reinforced the belief that the party’s nominating contest could last for months, and even extend to the Democratic National Convention in July without a clear winner.
Plus, a Gallup poll showed Trump’s job approval at 49%, the highest of his presidency, just before the GOP-led Senate voted to acquit him on charges of high crimes and misdemeanors over his dealings with Ukraine. The State of the Union address offered an opportunity for Trump to tout his message before a prime-time audience, while Democrats privately acknowledge that their message has been muddled, particularly without a clear leader at the top of the ticket.
Democrats caution there is plenty of time to right the ship before November, arguing that they will eventually come together to strengthen their party’s chances. But they also say that it can’t drag on for months.
Rep. Brendan Boyle, a Pennsylvania Democrat who supports Joe Biden, said that after the party’s sweeping success in the 2018 midterms, some in the party had unrealistic assumptions about 2020.
“I did sense just talking to some supporters of mine, some diehard Democrats back home, some folks here, that there might have been a little bit of what Alan Greenspan once called ‘irrational exuberance’ about 2020,” Boyle said Friday in the Capitol. “I would always say that this is going to tighten.”
Boyle said it could be ultimately beneficial that many in his party now realize how hard it will be to defeat Trump.
“To the extent this has happened now and people realize we are in a close race, we are in a tough fight, we need as strong a nominee as possible, we need as disciplined as message as possible for 2020, I think this is a good thing,” Boyle added. “But I would much rather have it happen now than October of 2020.”
Rep. Adam Smith, chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, said Republicans are “cocky and overconfident,” and he argued that “unity is highly overrated.”
“One of the more unified groups you will ever come across is the lemmings. It doesn’t work out too well for them,” said Smith, a Washington Democrat. “A little argument in the family is not a bad thing,” adding that “blind cultish-like loyalty blinds you to reality.”
But he added: “The fact that we are in February having some internal debates, that’s fine. That makes you stronger in the end. Now if we are doing that still in September, that could be a problem.”
Republicans believe that Trump will only go stronger now that he’s been acquitted by the Senate. But top House Democrats said Friday they have no regrets with impeaching Trump, even if it might have bolstered his electoral prospects.
“We had to bring the impeachment proceeding – whether it was going to strengthen the president’s political position or not – it was necessary to protect the Constitution,” said House Judiciary Chairman Jerry Nadler, a Democrat from New York. “Hopefully all the evidence that the managers brought to trial will impress the American people about the dangerousness of what is going on – and with the necessity for curbing it.”
Democrats in difficult reelection races are eager to focus on domestic issues – not impeachment – as they try to hold onto their seats. But some say the blowback hasn’t been as dire as the GOP made it out to be.
“Some people are overjoyed, some people are upset, some people don’t give a sh*t,” said freshman Rep. Max Rose, a New York Democrat from a swing district, when asked about reaction in his district to his votes to impeach Trump. “That is the nature of every single vote.”