Arnon Mishkin: Historic impeachment battle shaping up between insider Pelosi and outsider Trump

Some Democrats grumbled in recent weeks at the reluctance of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., to launch an impeachment investigation of President Trump. But Pelosi argued that she needed to protect the most vulnerable Democratic members of Congress – the ones who in 2018 won 40 Republican House seats, including many in districts where most voters solidly supported Trump in 2016 and likely still do.

Pelosi finally came around Tuesday. She did so after the most recent evidence of Trump asking the Ukrainian president to “look into” former Vice President Joe Biden and his son Hunter regarding the younger Biden’s business dealings in Ukraine and Joe Biden’s role in the dismissal of a prosecutor who was investigating the Ukrainian company on whose board Hunter Biden served.

Pelosi spoke not long after several potentially vulnerable freshmen Democratic representatives announced their support for an impeachment investigation.

DEMS DOUBLE DOWN ON IMPEACHMENT AFTER UKRAINE TRANSCRIPT RELEASE, DESCRIBE CALL AS MAFIA-STYLE ‘SHAKEDOWN’

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Pelosi has – not surprisingly – behaved very much as the daughter of a politician (her father was a congressman and later mayor of Baltimore) would be expected to. She has stayed close to her base and shown she knows how to count votes. These are the same political skills she used to regain the speakership, even after presiding over the loss of a Democratic majority in the House.

But the impeachment target, President Trump, has historic political skills of his own. For all the talk of him being a first-time politician, he has skills honed from years of New York tabloid wars and reality television. That’s no “diss.” This is a man who knows how to create suspense and navigate a career doing summersaults on a trapeze without a net.

Don’t underestimate a resume that reads: a hotshot real estate developer, a tabloid celebrity and casino operator who declared corporate bankruptcy and recovered; a reality TV star; a Democrat turned leading Republican; and now someone who rides in Air Force One and sits in the Oval Office.

Many have enjoyed laughing at Donald Trump, but few have made money betting against him.

Pelosi knows how to play the inside political game – but Trump remains a master at the public art of politics.

To date, Trump has been effective at convincing enough Americans to oppose impeachment. A Fox News poll in July – just before now-former Special Counsel Robert Mueller testified before Congress – showed that 45 percent of registered voters believed Trump should not be impeached, while 42 percent believed he should be impeached and removed from office. Another 5 percent believed Trump should be impeached but not removed.

Many have enjoyed laughing at Donald Trump, but few have made money betting against him.

The recent revelation that Trump sought to get the Ukrainian government to investigate Joe Biden – the president’s potential 2020 reelection opponent – may change that, as could the House Democrats’ decision to open an impeachment investigation. But it’s equally likely that Americans will just move ever closer to their current polarized positions.

My advice on polls about impeachment: start paying attention next week, after this current news cycle has played out and we can gauge public reaction.

In the face of all this, here’s a look at the strategy that each side is likely to play.

Pelosi and House Democrats have three goals in mind: keep their majority in the House, win the presidency, and see a Democratic majority in the Senate. They believe there is evidence against Trump – some of which the Trump administration has not been sharing – that either rises to the level of impeachment or at the least casts Trump in a very negative light.

While some people argue that there is no way that a Republican-controlled Senate will find a two-thirds majority to convict and remove Trump from office, many Democrats may not care. They will find it strategically useful to have nonstop television news coverage of impeachment hearings about what they believe is evidence that will reflect negatively on the president.

And while some Democrats say an impeachment investigation shouldn’t interfere with the 2020 election, others will welcome the chance to have the investigation play out just as the election campaign is in full swing.

An alternative viewpoint is that Trump – in a way – welcomes the impeachment investigation. Those who hold this view believe it plays into the president’s theme that he is fighting against a “Deep State” in order to “drain the swamp.”

Like President Bill Clinton (yes, Bill Clinton) and a champion bullfighter, Trump has shown himself to be most effective when his back is against the wall and everyone thinks he’s about to fail.

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Despite six corporate bankruptcies, multiple accusations of wrongdoing against him, a special counsel’s investigation and daily attacks by Democrats and the media, Trump is still able to go thumbs-up behind the Resolute desk.

For those of us who refuse to underestimate Trump, the fact that he released a summary Wednesday of his July 25 phone call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and spoke to reporters with Zelensky after the two met at the United Nations suggests Trump might have something up his sleeve.

TRUMP'S UKRAINE CALL TRANSCRIPT: READ THE DOCUMENT

The summary shows that while Trump sought an investigation of Biden family dealings in Ukraine, there isn’t a direct quote explicitly linking the request to U.S. aid.

Speaking to reporters alongside Trump, Zelensky said Wednesday that Trump did not pressure him to investigate the Biden family in the July 25 call.

“Nobody pushed me,” Zelensky said. “We had a great phone call.”

Republican senators – especially those up for reelection in 2020 – face a double bind. Polls universally show Trump with strong support among Republicans. As a result, if GOP senators attack Trump they open themselves to a threat of a Republican primary from that solid Trump base, or reduced turnout among Republicans in the general election.

However, if Republican senators are too strongly associated with Trump and are seen as ignoring what many non-Republican voters see as his misconduct, the senators may find it difficult to win reelection in the battleground states of Arizona, Colorado, Maine, North Carolina and even Georgia. Republican senators seeking reelection in those states and others want the support of some independents and even moderate Democrats in November 2020.

Interestingly, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., came out in support of getting to the whistleblower complaint against President Trump regarding the call with Zelensky and apparently other issues released to Congress. McConnell’s reasoning appears to be that if the news is going to be bad, get it out quickly so it can fade in the public mind by November 2020.

For the Democratic presidential hopefuls, the controversy over Ukraine and Biden is a bit of minefield.

For Biden, the whole affair seems to cast him the way he wants: he’s the Democrat’s best chance to be elected president because he’s the guy Trump appears to fear most.

On the other hand, even though there doesn’t appear to be anything to the accusation of improper conduct by the former vice president, it would not be the first time that Trump has forced the media to ask one of his adversaries the equivalent of “When did you stop beating your wife?”

Democratic presidential contender Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, who was the first to come out in favor of the impeachment of Trump, may see some traction with her core message: See, I told you. And as with other things, you can trust me that I know what we need to do.

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For the other Democratic presidential contenders – especially those whose campaigns are still struggling for attention – recent developments are actually bad news: the developments shift attention from their campaign and onto the battle over impeachment.

One thing is certain: the center ring of the political circus is going to be the outcome of the impeachment investigation of the president. And it’s a fight between a master of outsized public spectacle and a master of hidden vote counting.

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