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Wednesday, January 22, 2020

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

Will acquittal remove a negative or provide a positive for President Trump? The answer is crucial to Democrats’ November chances. In either case, he will be stronger.

The assertion has been made that impeachment has not hurt Mr. Trump. Cited as evidence is the minimal negative polling impact and the assertion that Americans see impeachment as purely politics. As much as Trump supporters wish to believe this, it is wrong. 


Of course, impeachment has hurt Mr. Trump. Only three presidents have been impeached, and it remains the worst that the U.S. Constitution can mete out to one. It has allowed Democrats an unequalled climax for their long-term delegitimization campaign.

Even Bill Clinton, was not rehabilitated until after impeachment. Further, Mr. Clinton’s was short compared to Mr. Trump’s, whose impeachment has been called for since his inauguration. 

Its excessive duration is also why impeachment’s damage to Mr. Trump is largely unseen now. Impeachment has been incorporated into opinions and expectations. Its effect was already factored in, ahead of formal impeachment. 

The significant change that the formal impeachment of the last few months offers to Mr. Trump — versus the de facto impeachment of the last three years — is closure. Certainly, closure will not occur for Democrats, who have already begun preparing against this. However, for nonpartisan voters, the Constitution will say: Over. 

The question is whether impeachment’s conclusion will remove a headwind from the president or provide him a tailwind?

If impeachment’s conclusion takes away a headwind, it will mean that Mr. Trump more closely resembles a normal incumbent president — a normal incumbent president with a strong economy and two major trade wins this week alone. It will mean that impeachment will cease being an offsetting negative factor for nonpartisan voters. 

Being a normal incumbent may not sound like a large improvement. However, if Mr. Trump’s re-election is considered 50-50 now, compare that to routine incumbents’ success. Since 1912, elected incumbents are 11-3 when seeking a second term. The three (Hoover, Carter and Bush I) who lost all had negative annual GDP growth within a year of their re-election.

Without a negative filter, nonpartisan voters — those whose votes will not be determined largely by their party affiliation — break decisively for the incumbent. While Mr. Trump has not had a bad economy be a negative filter, Democrats have worked hard to create a scandal one. If impeachment’s conclusion simply removes that headwind, Mr. Trump could expect to see a boost, as nonpartisan voters react in a conventionally positive manner in November.

If impeachment’s conclusion creates a tailwind, then Mr. Trump receives an even greater boost. Does this mean converting opponents into supporters? Not necessarily and not likely — but also, not necessary. It could mean that, unlike removing the headwind, where the current political alignment between partisans and nonpartisans continues (and incumbency exerts its positive effect), a headwind would positively reshape the current nonpartisan alignment for Mr. Trump.

This would see some nonpartisans moving toward Mr. Trump. Some “leaning no,” move to undecided, some undecided move to “leaning yes,” and some “leaning yes” move to “strong yes.” The president would not simply see today’s configuration of nonpartisans, but a better one. With nonpartisans’ proclivity toward incumbency, this would have an even larger impact for Mr. Trump.

Just as impeachment — first as threat, then as reality — has had an impact on Mr. Trump, so will impeachment’s conclusion. It will be positive. The question is only how much. 

Democrats know this — perhaps better than anyone. That is why they pursued it so doggedly throughout his administration. It is also why they will do all they can to not relinquish it, even after Senate acquittal: “Impeached for life” is not Democratic hyperbole; it is Democratic strategy. 

However, Democrats cannot stop closure in most Americans’ eyes — Mr. Trump’s supporters and nonpartisans. They also risk looking increasingly political, the more they increasingly seek to retain impeachment beyond its constitutional parameters. 

While Democrats are conscious that Mr. Trump will shortly see an advantage from impeachment’s conclusion, they appear unaware of their disadvantage from continuing to pursue it. How strong Mr. Trump’s favorable post-impeachment wind will be, is largely dependent on them.

• J.T. Young served in the Office of Management and Budget and at the Treasury Department. 


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