Anyone following the news in the United States might be forgiven for thinking the 2020 presidential campaign has been put on hold: almost every headline, opinion piece and podcast for the past two weeks has become laser-focused on the unfolding impeachment inquiry taking place on Capitol Hill.
However, despite appearances, the contest for the Democratic presidential nomination is still going strong. The next televised debate is about to happen, and candidates are scrambling to qualify for next month’s debate.
It is a tricky thing to campaign for president when all of the media oxygen has been sucked from the room by the opening rounds of an impeachment battle. (Bernie Sanders might actually be grateful for the timing of the impeachment inquiry – it has likely negated critical coverage of his serious health scare.)
Trump’s impeachment could, however, prove to be a benefit for some of the Democratic presidential candidates. The story might be utterly dominating the mass media’s political coverage, but if any candidate can become involved in the story, they will be putting themselves under the biggest spotlight in the nation.
To some extent, this has already happened for one candidate.
The House’s impeachment inquiry was launched to investigate Trump’s blatant and criminal attempts to undermine the political career of the man he sees as his biggest threat in 2020: former Vice President Joe Biden.
Trump’s attempts to undermine Biden and the subsequent investigations are a boon to the Biden campaign. His lead of the Democratic primary has looked increasingly shaky in recent weeks, as Senator Elizabeth Warren has crept up on him in both national polling and polls in significant early states such as Iowa.
Now though, Biden’s most powerful argument – that he is the most “electable” candidate to take on Donald Trump in 2020 – has been reinforced by Trump’s attempts to get the Ukrainian government to target him.
Of almost twenty Democrats running for President, Biden was apparently the one that has Trump worried enough to drive him to commit impeachable offenses. An increasingly angry Biden recently called for Trump to be impeached.
Trump and his supporters have been desperate to paint the call to Ukraine’s President Zelenskiy that sparked the impeachment inquiry as a noble attempt to root out corruption linked to Joe Biden and his son, Hunter.
Their accusations – that Biden used his influence as Obama’s Vice President to pressure Ukraine in 2015 and help his son’s business interests – have been repeatedly proven false (“a bunch of malarkey,” as Biden might put it).
However, while Joe Biden navigated his son’s interests with legal propriety as Vice President, it is undeniable that Hunter has used his family name to profit his business interests. This behavior may smack of nepotism to dedicated Democratic activists, most of whom are already sickened by the (far more extreme) nepotism displayed by the Trump family. An increased spotlight on the Biden family will mean the former Vice President’s team will have to tread carefully.
The House of Representatives has previously impeached just two presidents (Johnson, Clinton) and come close to impeaching a third (Nixon).
The Nixon impeachment inquiry, which was cut off by Nixon’s resignation, offers a template that Democrats are utilizing to guide their work.
The inquiry is currently in the investigatory phase. The committees of the House of Representatives are in charge of this stage of the proceedings, with Intelligence Chair Adam Schiff (now a frequent foil of Trump) serving as point. Once evidence has been secured, the House Judiciary Committee will decide whether to draw up articles of impeachment, and the whole House will vote on the articles.
The fact that impeachment begins in the House might have been a great opportunity for the U.S. Representatives who are currently running for President. Unfortunately for Tulsi Gabbard, Tim Ryan and John Delaney, none of them are on the major committees investigating Trump’s conduct.
That means that they won’t benefit from the extensive airtime that the committee investigators get from big media outlets like CNN or MSNBC.
California’s Eric Swalwell, incidentally, was the first Democratic candidate to drop out of the race, but now he finds himself front and center in the inquiry, as a member of both the House Judiciary and the House Intelligence Committees.
One Democratic candidate who might be able to increase their name recognition (in a roundabout way) through the House impeachment process is former H.U.D. Secretary Julián Castro. Castro does not currently hold elected office, but his identical twin brother Joaquin represents Texas’ 20th District, and sits on committees for both Foreign Affairs and Intelligence.
As Joaquin is also Julián’s campaign chairman, he may try to use the spotlight of impeachment to advance his brother’s presidential campaign.
Another potential beneficiary from the impeachment inquiry is California billionaire Tom Steyer. Steyer rose to national prominence in late 2017, when he fronted (and poured millions of his personal fortune into) the ‘Need to Impeach’ campaign, an online petition designed to pressure lawmakers into impeaching Donald Trump. Steyer (who Trump has attacked personally on Twitter) can now make the argument that his political ideas have been vindicated, and that Democratic leaders like Nancy Pelosi are following his lead on the issue of impeachment.
If Donald Trump is impeached by the House of Representatives, the next step would be a trial in the Senate. Several of the candidates currently running for President are sitting U.S. senators: Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders, Kamala Harris, Cory Booker, Amy Klobuchar and Michael Bennet.
Although these candidates will be present at the trial as senators, there will be little opportunity for them to grab the spotlight; the Senate sits as a jury, while appointed members of the House of Representatives prosecute the case against the President. The situation is quite unlike the Senate committee hearings that we are familiar with, where Senators are allowed to verbally grill witnesses.
According to legal scholar Frank Bowman of the University of Missouri, in a Senate trial senators are allowed to submit questions to the legal teams through the Chief Justice, but “direct oral questions…would be unusual.” This robs the presidential candidates in the Senate (five of whom are experienced lawyers) of the chance to show off their intelligence and verbal toughness to the American people.
However, the Senators would still get to be in the room.
Several of the Democratic candidates have no way of participating directly in the impeachment inquiry – either because they are not in Congress despite serving in elected office (for example, Mayor Pete Buttigieg) or they do not currently hold elected office (Andrew Yang or Beto O’Rourke). These candidates have a hard road ahead of them – with no sign of the impeachment coverage dying down, shifting the national spotlight onto their presidential ambitions will be difficult indeed.