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How Will Impeachment Play Out on the Democratic Debate Stage?

Thursday’s debate comes one day after the House voted to impeach President Trump. How will the contenders respond?

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MSNBC moderators Rachel Maddow and Andrea Mitchell opened the previous Democratic presidential debate, in November, by asking the candidates to comment on President Donald Trump’s impeachment prospects. The majority House Democrats had already launched their preliminary “impeachment inquiry” against the president, and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell had promised to permit a trial in the Senate, despite his obstructionist inclinations, if the House were to vote to impeach Trump.

On Wednesday, the House voted 230-197-1 to impeach Trump for abuse of power and 229-198-1 for obstruction of Congress related to Trump’s July call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, during which the U.S. leader asked his counterpart to open an investigation into the son of leading Democratic presidential rival Joe Biden. Trump’s impeachment has displaced Robert Mueller’s special counsel investigation as the steady, infinite drip that now soaks the national political agenda. And yet, it has previously proved a marginal concern in the Democratic presidential primaries. The candidates discussed the impeachment inquiry for less than 10 minutes in the November debate before the moderators returned to the primary’s more persistent and provocative concerns: Medicare for All, the wealth tax, the Green New Deal, among them.

PBS NewsHour and Politico will cohost the next debate on Thursday evening, and the moderators will struggle to identify a more provocative topic than impeachment in the primary season’s sixth debate. Medicare for All has dominated discussion in the debates since the summer but has finally exhausted its proponents, as well as its critics, on the stage. It’s impeachment season now. Congressional Democrats have reclaimed the national political agenda, and impeachment has replaced Mueller’s investigation as the embodiment of so much anti-Trump animus.

The candidates have relished the opportunity in the five previous debates to redefine Democrats’ agenda on the party’s terms, prioritizing issues like health care, gun control, climate change, and income inequality. Trump hasn’t been as primary a figure for the candidates as he’s been for congressional Democrats, who continue working against him on a purely responsive, defensive basis. The lawmakers must relitigate Trump’s misconduct again and again. The candidates are free to dream bigger. They’re running (and polling) under the assumption that, if nominated, one of them will face Trump in the general election. Thus far, they have little to say about impeachment as the alternative means for removing Trump from office, even as he returns to his potential removal as the paranoid theme in his own stump speeches.

Though he no longer brags about wanting Congress to impeach him, Trump casts the process as a foolish provocation that will infuriate his supporters and, ironically, ensure his reelection. On Tuesday, Trump scribbled his hubris in a letter addressed to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. “Everyone, you included, knows what is really happening. Your chosen candidate lost the election in 2016, in an Electoral College landslide (306-227), and you and your party have never recovered from this defeat. You have developed a full-fledged case of what many in the media call Trump Derangement Syndrome and sadly, you will never get over it! You are unwilling and unable to accept the verdict issued at the ballot box during the great Election of 2016. So you have spent three straight years attempting to overturn the will of the American people and nullify their votes. You view democracy as your enemy!”

Trump describes so many attempts to mitigate his crude, corrupt, chaotic governance as the real despotism. But he underscores the sort of democratic fatigue that has allowed for the left-liberal collapse, including in the United Kingdom, where Boris Johnson promises to conclude Brexit after his Conservative Party won a recent parliamentary election. In Britain, as in the United States, the opposition has spent the past three years struggling to undo the primary consequence of a previous national election. On stage, the presidential candidates may promise a righteous future, but congressional Democrats promise an exhausting year in the meantime.