Former Vice President Joe Biden in August 2019. Photo by Gage Skidmore.
As House impeachment proceedings move into their public phase with the start of televised hearings today, a big impact on next year’s presidential election is practically assured – but that impact may not be on the fortunes of President Trump.
Instead, in all likelihood contrary to the intent of its designers, I suspect the impeachment process will doom the candidacy of former Vice President Joe Biden.
Biden’s campaign for the Democratic nomination to oppose Trump was already on soft ground due to his uneven debate performances, sluggish fundraising and Biden’s history of aborted past attempts to win the nomination. The last men to capture the White House after having earlier been top-tier but unsuccessful contenders for their party’s nod were Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, Reagan’s vice president. While Reagan was in the vanguard of a refreshed conservative movement in his party, Biden has positioned himself as the rear-guard moderate in a party with a fast and deep leftward current.
Now, by focusing the impeachment drive on the (alleged) impropriety of Trump tying the release of appropriated military aid to Ukraine to that country’s public launch of investigations into that country’s (alleged) involvement in the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign and the Biden family’s (alleged) activities there, the House of Representatives has ensured that the (allegedly) questionable hiring of Biden’s son Hunter will remain a high-profile topic well into the early primaries and caucuses.
On that score, it does not matter whether the former vice president or his son broke any laws, American or Ukrainian. The undisputed fact is that a politically connected Ukrainian natural gas company, Burisma Holdings, paid Hunter Biden as much as $600,000 per year to sit on its board of directors for five years. Those five years overlapped the period when Joe Biden was the Obama administration’s point man dealing with Ukraine’s government on anti-corruption matters, and later while he was a top prospective presidential candidate. Burisma offered this lucrative post despite the younger Biden’s evident unfamiliarity either with Ukrainian business or the natural gas industry. The offer also came not long after the U.S. Navy Reserve discharged the younger Biden, who has a history of drug and alcohol addiction, for failing a drug test.
The appearance, which will not be lost on voters of either party, is that while Joe Biden might not have been bought, his family name was available for rent.
As I wrote years ago about then-New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie in the aftermath of “Bridgegate,” Biden is now damaged goods. His best hope would have been to admit an error in judgment and try to put the matter behind him. (Hunter Biden has already admitted such an error, though without specifying exactly what that error in judgment was.) In Christie’s case, his stubborn refusal to take responsibility despite all appearances made the scandal stick to him. Voters ended up with the idea that this was a man who would not hesitate to make his own constituents miserable to settle a political score.
In contrast to Christie, Biden has not even been given the opportunity to quietly let his son’s business dealings become old news. Rep. Adam Schiff, the Intelligence Committee chairman who ran the closed-door impeachment auditions and who now will guide the public spectacle on national television, has seen to that.
Schiff will likely try to limit discussion of the Bidens in the forthcoming House proceedings. But once the House votes articles of impeachment, which seems inevitable, the matter will move the Senate. There, the trial of Trump’s presidency will proceed under what are apt to be very different rules. This assumes the Senate does not vote to dismiss the articles of impeachment out of hand. Many would view such a move as loyalty to Trump, but it might actually be a bigger favor to Biden and the Democrats. I wouldn’t bet on that happening.
Biden may well slog through some early primaries, hoping to pull through via a strong showing in Southern states with large African American populations (with whom he is still popular in part due to his service with President Barack Obama). This looks more and more unlikely. Don’t take my word for it. Consider the behavior of former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who last week filed in Alabama to keep his options to enter the race open. Or ponder the increasingly high profile of Eric Holder, Obama’s former attorney general. Holder has said he will not run for president next year, but he could be a vice presidential contender, or even a dark-horse candidate in a brokered convention if no dominant figure emerges from the Democratic Party’s scrum.
Since we are talking about impeachment, what about Trump, the impeachee-in-waiting? It is always a gamble to speculate on what happens next in this presidency, but it is fair to divide American adults into three camps. First, there are those who despise Trump and dislike most or all of his policies – also generally known as Democrats. Whatever happens will reinforce their views. Then there are the Republicans, and some independents, who don’t admire Trump personally but support a significant fraction of his policies and most of his judicial picks. They may have been open to persuasion, and perhaps – against all odds – still might be. The House process seems to have made that outcome unlikely, though. If sentiment seems to move sharply against Trump in the House hearings, Senate Republicans are apt to give him ample opportunity to mount a defense in which he will have the last word, followed by an acquittal mostly along party lines.
Finally, there is the 40% or so of the American public that consistently shows approval of Trump himself, as well his policies. They are not going to abandon him over any alleged horse-trading with Ukraine’s leaders, and especially not over the ethically myopic Bidens. So if I had to hazard a guess, it is that impeachment will have a big impact on only one candidate in next year’s race in the end – and that candidate’s name will not be Trump.