The Pragmatic Left: Dos and Don’ts for Winning Elections


Graphic by Esme Fahnestock.

In September, a senior Trump administration official wrote an anonymous op-ed for The New York Times that condemned the president’s unstable behavior. The essay assured the American public that “adults in the room” were checking Trump’s belligerency and protecting our institutions. Shockingly, the article discussed bureaucratic efforts to invoke Section 4 of the 25th Amendment, which allows the Cabinet, under congressional oversight, to declare the president incapacitated and unable to carry on the duties of the office. The author claims that this approach was considered, but abandoned because of a fear of causing a constitutional crisis.

The controversial article excited a liberal fantasy: using the 25th Amendment to oust Trump before 2020. In their fervor, some Democrats and leftist media neglected to consider the specific mechanisms of the amendment. 

Section 4 asserts that “the Vice President and a majority of either the principal officers of the executive departments” must declare the president  “unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office” in order to precipitate his/her removal. If the president contests this determination, Congress must agree to the removal by a two-thirds majority.

The unlikelihood that Vice President Mike Pence, senior officials in the administration, and a supermajority in Congress would turn on the president did not dissuade the media from churning out op-ed after op-ed about the possibility of Trump’s removal. The articles, by offering liberals false hope that Trump’s presidency could be brought to a quick end, attracted clicks and attention. 

While imagining a White House without Trump may be satisfying, Democrats should recognize how their fantasies energize Trump’s base. Both the 25th Amendment craze and liberal calls for impeachment are bad politics. As House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi tactfully remarked in an interview with Rolling Stone last August, the removal issue is “a gift to the Republicans … I don’t think it’s in the interest of America’s working families to focus on that, unless we have more [evidence] to go on, which we don’t at this time.” 

With the 2018 midterm elections fast approaching, Pelosi is right to fear that talk of removal or impeachment will infuriate and motivate tribal Republicans. Trump’s corruption, coziness with Putin, and irrational tariffs have left his GOP base dejected and demoralized. That base, however, shows signs of revival when the political discussion in our country turns away from policy arguments and toward partisan fights. 

We see this, for example, with the possible recent uptick in Republican voters’ enthusiasm after the Kavanaugh confirmation debacle. Democrats could enjoy a blue wave in the coming elections by focusing on broad-based economic policies that work to the advantage of the middle and working classes. To do so, however, they must avoid talking about impeachment or the 25th Amendment and kindling partisan resentment.

Democrats should learn from Republican politics. In 1998, the GOP campaigned during the midterm elections with the promise that their success would bring about President Bill Clinton’s impeachment. The scheme backfired by drawing great Democratic turnout at the polls. Ultimately, the Republicans lost three House seats and House Speaker Newt Gingrich, a loud advocate for Clinton’s removal, stepped down.

Pelosi appears to be on the right track. Under her guidance, Democratic leaders have, with few exceptions, sidestepped the impeachment and removal issues. When the subject is broached, they smartly shift the conversation back to their “kitchen-table” platform, refusing to arm Republicans with partisan ammo. 

We may want Trump out of office, but we cannot enable Republicans to make the midterm elections what Steve Bannon, Trump’s former chief strategist, recently predicted they will be: an “up or down vote on the impeachment of Donald Trump.” Impeachment rhetoric and discussions of invoking the 25th Amendment are losers on the trail and impossible in reality (getting two-thirds of the Senate to vote for either will not happen). 

We must not succumb to the temptation of employing them. If Democrats continue to promote policies that benefit the majority of Americans, we will win at the polls next month and in 2020.