Ratings show Americans are tuning in to the House’s public impeachment hearings, and polls show a clear majority of them find President Donald Trump’s actions wrong. Even so, Democrats face obstacles that could keep public support from reaching a tipping point toward impeachment and removal of the president. What’s more, these obstacles are completely independent from the increasingly corroborated substance of their charges against the president.
1. This is about Ukraine
Ukraine is a U.S. political and military ally. In fact, according to the State Department, “The United States attaches great importance to the success of Ukraine as a free and democratic state.” Both parties agree that Ukraine is a key actor in stymieing Russian aggression in the region.
But the American public isn’t generally familiar with Ukraine. This might prevent Democrats from persuading many average Americans to care enough about this scandal that they invest time in learning about the details. We care about what we know and what is familiar. We are more likely to pay attention when what we easily relate to is involved, such as in the Richard Nixon and Bill Clinton impeachment proceedings about episodes on our home turf. Right or wrong, Ukraine could be too foreign, simply too far away, to break through the public consciousness and move enough voters undecided on the facts of the case toward the Democratic position.
2. Foreign aid is unpopular
As part of his America First platform, candidate Trump capitalized on the public’s long standing animosity on spending abroad in the name of foreign aid. For decades, Americans have severely overestimated both the amount and the percentage of the federal budget committed to foreign assistance. And recent polling finds that over half of Americans believe that foreign aid spending nets a bad return on the investment of taxpayer funds.
This matters to this inquiry because Democrats, on some level, are asking Americans to get upset about foreign aid to a country many of them would have trouble finding on a map. It might be a tough sell to gin up uncommitted members of the public against a president who is reluctant to send taxpayer funds to a foreign country with a reputation for corruption. Trump ran on that message, and it paid off. Now Republicans can claim he’s following through.
3. The cast of characters is complex
Democrats have trying to make their impeachment case as simple as possible: President Trump abused his office for personal political gain. But even with that straightforward narrative, Americans may struggle with the roster of unknown actors in the drama, making it harder for them to keep track of who said and did what when.
The witnesses are mostly career state department officers with no public standing or name recognition, allowing Republicans to hammer them as unelected bureaucrats out to get the president. Even talking heads on TV who follow this inquiry minute by minute have mixed up which witness held which job. If average voters feel like there is too much to grasp, both in names and in events, they might be less likely to even try.
4. People think they know the ending
A final key obstacle is that most folks who are following the impeachment inquiry think they already know how this movie ends: The Democratic House impeaches Trump, and the Republican Senate tries and acquits him.
Of course, we could all be surprised by new information, a court ruling that certain high-level subpoenaed witnesses must appear before the Intelligence Committee, or an unexpected “John Dean” moment that plays out in front of the cameras — which Democrats may have gotten with the explosive public testimony of Gordon Sondland, the U.S. ambassador to the European Union. But many pundits and Americans, even those who think the president’s actions warrant impeachment, are convinced that no matter what facts come to light, Trump will be spared by the Republican senators who represent states where he remains popular.
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That matters. A lot. Democrats need to shake up the inevitability narrative in order to build momentum for impeachment and removal. Otherwise, the undecided public could move toward the Republican claim that the whole undertaking is a waste of time and money — especially when voters know they will have a chance to remove the president at the ballot box in less than a year.
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