Washington: The 2020 Democratic presidential race moves into a crucial new phase this week as the release of Mueller report and the expected entry of former Vice-President Joe Biden into the fray reshape the debate and reset what’s been a fluid field of contenders.
Biden’s entry comes just as Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s conclusions from his two-year investigation of Russian election interference delivered a trove of material for attacks by the Democratic contenders on President Donald Trump — if they choose to use it.
The Russia probe has consumed Washington but it’s rarely raised on the campaign trail by either voters or the candidates. So far among the 18 declared candidates, only Senator Elizabeth Warren and former Obama cabinet secretary Julian Castro have called for beginning impeachment proceedings. It’s a sign of how the party is still trying to navigate between hitting Trump hard or keeping the focus on kitchen-table issues that won them the House in 2018.
Meanwhile, the former vice president is poised to jump into the race this week. He’ll enter as the front-runner, buoyed by near-universal name recognition, a nostalgia for Barack Obama’s presidency and support from moderate Democrats.
In some ways, the timing of the Mueller report couldn’t be better for Biden.
He has signalled he’ll run by portraying himself as Trump’s opposite: an experienced and steady hand, largely free of scandal and a unifying voice in an age of polarised politics. Biden can attempt to remind voters of Obama’s largely scandal-free eight years and draw the contrast between himself and Trump, who is portrayed in the report as impulsive, scheming and disingenuous.
But that message could get drowned out if impeachment becomes a popular position with the rest of his party. And Biden, trying to recall a simpler time, also might highlight his 40-year career in Washington that could make him look less like a steady hand and more like a throwback, especially compared to the mostly younger field.
During the long lead up to his announcement, Biden has avoided addressing some of the central policy issues of the primary that have excited the Democratic base, like Medicare for All and a so-called Green New Deal. He sidestepped questions Thursday about his response to the Mueller report by saying he hadn’t read it. Since then, he has not commented on the special counsel’s findings, let alone on where he stands on impeachment.
Warren’s call to start impeachment efforts runs counter to the attempts by other party leaders, including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, to tamp down on such talk, at least for now. It may raise pressure on Biden and the rest of the field to take a clear stand.
“The Mueller report very carefully documents how Donald Trump tried time after time after time to block, to divert, to shut down the investigation into his wrongdoing and the investigation into a foreign power’s attack on our electoral system,” the Massachusetts senator told reporters at a campaign stop in New Hampshire over the weekend. “It’s there. It’s documented. Some decisions are bigger than politics.”
But Warren will continue to focus on her policy proposals and not on impeaching Trump when campaigning, according to an aide. Other Democrats in the top tier, including Bernie Sanders, Kamala Harris, Pete Buttigieg and Beto O’Rourke have been more tentative. They mostly are urging a fuller investigation by various House committees into Trump’s conduct, including the Judiciary Committee led by New York Representative Jerrold Nadler, which would have jurisdiction over any impeachment initiative.
Brian Fallon, a former spokesman for Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign who now runs the progressive judicial group Demand Justice, said that may be the better strategy.
“Democrats need to be able to walk and chew gum at the same time. Jerry Nadler can conduct hearings that dig deeper into the findings within the Mueller report, while the 2020 field prioritises kitchen-table issues on the campaign trail,” he said. House Democrats can handle the investigations of Trump “without it overtaking the agenda of the eventual nominee” for the presidency.
Many Democratic voters — though hardly all — say they would rather hear the candidates talking about issues other than impeachment.
‘Waste’ of time
“I wouldn’t waste time on impeachment because it won’t get him out of office before 2020. I favour censuring him and continuing to investigate,” said David Erikson, 65, at a Warren campaign event in Weare, New Hampshire. “I’d rather they spend their time solving climate change, immigration, and infrastructure.”
Andrea Amodeo-Vickery, 69, a lawyer, criticised Warren’s call for impeachment after her event in Amherst, New Hampshire. “My objection is that while it feels right to do it “-- we want to rub his nose in it “-- we can get rid of him in 18 months, without risking the alienation of independents and moderate Republicans,” Amodeo-Vickery said, adding though she’s still impressed with Warren and might end up supporting her.
Impeachment or not, some candidates are fund-raising off the release of Mueller’s report and using it to mobilise voters to oust the president next year.
“With the Mueller report out yesterday, the urgency of uniting a massive, grass roots movement to stop another Trump presidency and elect a new president who will protect democracy is clear,” O’Rourke’s campaign wrote to supporters Friday afternoon.
Over the next week, the impeachment question will be getting a fuller airing among the Democratic candidates. The first set of formal debates is still two months away, but the candidates will begin appearing more frequently at events where they speak back-to-back.
CNN is hosting five candidates for town halls on Monday night. At least eight will be in Houston on Wednesday for She the People, a forum addressing issues important to women of colour, and even more are scheduled to appear Saturday at a forum on the economy hosted by the Service Employees International Union and the Centre for American Progress Action Fund.