Rep. Ilhan Omar (top left), Rep. Ayanna Pressley (bottom left), Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (center), Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (top right), and Rep. Rashida Tlaib (bottom right). Photo credit: POMED / Flickr (CC BY 2.0), AFGE / Flickr (CC BY 2.0), Gage Skidmore / Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0), nrkbeta / Wikimedia (CC BY-SA 2.0), and MPAC National / Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

Democrats have been talking about impeachment all year, but is it starting to divide them? Ask progressive insurgents launching primary campaigns.

Few political leaders would seem more invulnerable than Nancy Pelosi (CA), the speaker of the House and a Democrat in one of the most heavily Democratic cities in the country. But don’t tell that to Shahid Buttar, a 44-year-old San Francisco attorney with the Electronic Frontier Foundation. 

Buttar is in his second primary bid against Pelosi, who has been in the House since 1987. The son of Pakistani immigrants, he has called the speaker’s resistance to the Trump administration “theatrical.” The need to push for impeachment is one of his major campaign issues.

“All I can say is, Speaker Pelosi is either going to proceed with impeachment and there will be a national controversy about it,” Buttar told WhoWhatWhy. “Or her career is going to end in less than a year when she loses the primary to me.” 

Buttar lost to Pelosi in last year’s Democratic primary by a wide margin, but he’s a lot more confident this year, in part because he says millennials — a fast-growing part of the Democratic Party base — are telling him on the campaign trail how eager they are to see Trump impeached. Millennial voters, he said, are fed up with the status quo.

“I am the Democratic Party base,” he said. “I’m running from the base because we’re tired of compromise. I’m a voice of the base and I’m an ally of the future. We win every crowd we’re in front of. I’m very confident that we’ll win the general election — and our general is the primary — because San Franciscans are not establishment. Our city is increasingly young, and I win that crowd, and they are aghast at the serial litany of abuses that is pulling the country into an authoritarian abyss that our speaker is allowing to happen.”

Impeachment may now be turning into more of a headache for Democrats, dividing them between progressives pushing to move quickly toward impeachment and moderates who are resistant to that approach. As of last week, however, a majority of House Democrats have joined the impeachment bandwagon; more than 20 members were apparently convinced by former special counsel Robert Mueller’s recent testimony before Congress. 

Insurgents Looking for an Upset

Anyone wondering why Buttar is making this long-shot bid should look at the example of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) a leader of the Democrats’ progressive wing.

Buttar has acknowledged being inspired by the lawmaker known as AOC, who has taken Washington by storm. It all began when she toppled longtime incumbent Joe Crowley in the New York Democratic primary by running to his left.

Buttar predicts more upsets like AOC’s.

“We are beginning to witness a political earthquake,” he said, “and AOC’s win and [Sen. Bernie Sanders’s (I-VT)] remarkable showing in 2016 — and this cycle he’s raising more money from donors — all of those are tremors of an earthquake. Millennials are looking for a viable future on this planet, and it’s precisely what the centrists have failed to deliver.

“Pelosi’s reticence to initiate impeachment is an abdication of her constitutional responsibilities,” Buttar added. “Her calculus that proceeding with impeachment will be a political liability is confused, and it doesn’t matter anyway because it’s a winner for us. We need to fire up the Democratic base.”

Still, last week, Pelosi permitted House Judiciary Democrats to ask the court to unseal grand jury documents redacted in the Mueller report, a clear signal that the committee has already commenced an impeachment investigation.

Why the Division on Impeachment?

Although House Democrats are solidly united in their opposition to Trump, views on impeachment are far more nuanced. For a lot of moderate Democrats, this is as much a political issue — and one of political survival — as it is about justice applying to everyone, sitting presidents not excepted.

These divisions were apparent on the campaign trail in 2018, between those in safe Democratic districts, who were calling for impeachment long before special counsel Robert Mueller completed his investigation, and those running in more Republican-leaning districts, where impeachment was nowhere near as widely embraced by voters.

Since the Senate would almost certainly vote not to convict, Pelosi said in an interview in June that starting impeachment proceedings against Trump was “not off the table” but added, “I don’t think you should impeach for political reasons, and I don’t think you should not impeach for political reasons.”

The result: increasingly vocal criticism from progressives — in Congress and among activist groups — and a growing number of primary challenges to longtime House Democrats. 

As more progressive candidates are recruited to challenge incumbent Democrats, including Pelosi, the question becomes: How divided will the party be if impeachment proceedings don’t happen?

A Growing Chorus of Criticism

There’s no question that the House speaker has been responsive to moderate Democrats in competitive districts, who say impeachment is unpopular with their constituents. But the patience she’s been urging among progressive Democrats seems to be wearing thin.

Even Justin Amash, the Michigan congressman who recently abandoned the Republican Party to become an independent, has criticized Pelosi’s strategy as misguided.

In an interview with Jake Tapper on State of The Union, Amash said, “From a principled, moral position, she’s making a mistake. From a strategic position, she’s making a mistake. If she believes, as I do, that there’s impeachable conduct in there, then she should say so.”

And on ABC’s This Week, AOC insisted that holding off on impeachment would backfire badly on the Democratic Party. “I think every day that passes the pressure to impeach grows,” she said. “It’s justifiable…  I believe there is a very real animus and desire to make sure that we are holding this president to account.”

Up until now, that animus has played out on talk shows and social media. What’s changing is the pace of recruitment efforts by a number of progressive groups seeking to challenge top House Democrats. 

Justice Democrats — the progressive political action that group formed in 2017 with the slogan “We need a Democratic Party that fights for its voters, not just its corporate donors,” and that helped AOC win her primary — is recruiting candidates for primary challenges next year. Their rationale: a lot of the Democrats in the House today are out of touch with, and not reflective of, their base.

“We recruited and helped Alexandria pull off one of the biggest upsets in American history,” the Justice Democrats website proclaims. “But the top of the Democratic Party is still disproportionately wealthier, whiter, and more male than the base. Now it’s time for more leaders in the Democratic Party who don’t just represent corporate donors, but the voters of the Democratic Party: women, people of color, young people, and working-class people of all backgrounds to help build our progressive movement.”

Their targets include Rep. Elliott Engel (D-NY) — a veteran first elected in 1988 — and Rep. Henry Cuellar (D-TX), both considered moderates. Engel is white and Jewish, while Cuellar is Latino. But Justice Democrats is also taking aim at several African American House members, a move that has angered the Congressional Black Caucus. Justice Democrats is backing primary challengers to Rep. Lacy Clay (D-MO) and, potentially, two other New York Democrats: Democratic Caucus Chairman Hakeem Jeffries and Yvette Clarke.

And they’re also backing Buttar. 

“For two years the Democratic Party establishment has been beating a drum of so-called resistance, but where is the resistance when it matters? Impeachment is a constitutional imperative,” Buttar said. “The president’s impeachable acts are legion, every discrete lie he’s told the legislative branch or the press or the American people, let alone obstruction of justice. People have written books about the impeachable crimes of this president.”

Not everyone agrees that the issue will be a winner at the polls come 2020. Political scientist Kyle Kondik, managing editor of Sabato’s Crystal Ball at the University of Virginia Center for Politics, told WhoWhatWhy there just isn’t enough evidence that impeachment alone is going to sweep out longtime Democratic House members in primary races.

“Impeachment could potentially be part of a larger argument that a primary challenger would make against an entrenched incumbent, but I doubt it would work on its own,” he said. “Incumbent primary losses don’t happen very often — although there usually are a few every cycle — and they can often be the product of a number of factors, including an engaged opponent, demographic change, and/or an incumbent who is compromised in crucial ways.”

So is Pelosi vulnerable?

Steven Bliss, director of media and web at the Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC) in San Francisco, says a recent PPIC survey of Californians offers mixed news for Pelosi.

For one thing, approval of Congress is low. The PPIC survey showed that with Democrats in control of the House today and the Senate under Republican control, just a third of Californians (34 percent) approve of the way Congress is handling its job. The study also found that approval of Congress is even lower among likely voters, just 23 percent.

As Bliss noted, the survey found that 48 percent of Californians and 50 percent of likely voters approve of the way that Pelosi is handling her job.

However, Pelosi scores considerably higher based on party. Although a huge majority of Republicans (81 percent) disapprove of her performance, an equally solid majority of Democrats (77 percent) approve. Independents are divided, with 45 percent approving and 49 percent disapproving. The survey also found that her overall approval rating in the San Francisco Bay area was higher, at 55 percent.

To Impeach or Not Impeach

While progressive groups have been the most vocal about moving forward with impeachment, and moderates have been quieter and more circumspect on the issue, that hasn’t always been the case. Cuellar, for one, has already stated publicly that he’s a “No” vote on impeachment, despite his anticipated primary challenge from a more progressive candidate. During a luncheon at the DoubleTree hotel in McAllen for a legislative update panel, Cuellar said, “The short answer is: Would I vote right now to impeach the president? No.”

His logic? Impeachment, from a political perspective, is a lost cause.

“Even if the House is able to pass an impeachment, everybody knows what the Senate is going to do,” he said. “Why are you going to divide the country more than what it’s been? We’ve got to bring civility back.”

That kind of talk has angered progressive groups, who argue that Trump’s policies are far too reactionary and destructive to wait for the 2020 presidential election to oust him, as Cuellar has advocated. In June, more than 25 progressive groups sent a letter to Pelosi demanding that she proceed with impeachment hearings immediately.

Rep. Henry Cuellar (D-TX) (right) chatting with acting ICE Director Thomas Homan (left), acting US Border Patrol Chief Carla Provost, and Deputy Executive Assistant Commissioner John Wagner (OFO) in the US Capitol on June 13, 2017. Photo credit: U.S. Customs and Border Protection / Flickr

“Voters gave Democrats control of the House of Representatives because they wanted aggressive oversight of the Trump administration,” the letter noted. “Yet, your leadership is resulting in dangerous inaction that enables this racist and xenophobic president. Our families, friends, communities, country and planet deserve a party that chooses people over politics — and that starts with your willingness to take bold, moral leadership.”

The letter accused Pelosi of offering nothing more than “political excuses” for holding off on impeachment, adding that the nation is facing a constitutional crisis and that the framers placed the impeachment power in the Constitution precisely for the purpose of confronting a lawless president like Trump.

It was signed by not only Justice Democrats, but also CREDO Action, Citizens Impeachment Coalition, Democracy for America, Women’s March, and the Working Families Party, among many others.

In addition, the progressive activist group Stand Up America is turning up the heat, claiming it has 2.4 million members pressuring Democratic congressional leaders to begin impeachment proceedings. Its campaign has included digital ads across the web.

Stand Up America brushes aside the political arguments against impeachment, as well as concerns about whether it would backfire in swing districts. The group takes the position that the Mueller report lays out quite clearly how Trump broke the law, and insists Democrats have an obligation to the American people to apply the rule of law to this presidency.

“After reviewing the evidence in the Mueller report, more than 900 former federal prosecutors determined that Trump would have been charged with criminal obstruction of justice if not for the office he holds,” the group notes on its website. 

“Trump broke the law. Mueller’s report outlines at least 10 episodes of obstruction of justice and identifies 140+ ties between the Trump administration and the Kremlin. We need to demand an impeachment inquiry to air the truth and hold Trump accountable.”

The website quotes Pelosi herself saying “This president is obstructing justice, and he’s engaged in a cover-up, and that could be an impeachable offense.” 

But what about political implications for the 2020 elections? Stand Up America insists it’s  concerned about that — and more specifically, about holding accountable the Democrats who waffle on impeachment, to the detriment of the nation.

“An impeachment inquiry is now the only viable option to fully expose the extent of Trump and his administration’s corruption and hold him accountable for the numerous crimes that Mueller detailed in his report,” the group’s website says.

But Kondik warns that progressive insurgents, including those challenging Democratic incumbents on the impeachment issue, may be overestimating how important the issue will be a year from now.

“By the time of primaries next year, we’ll be months away from the general election,” the political scientist from Virginia says. “Is a burning desire for impeachment going to fuel primary challengers when the actual election to decide the incumbent president’s fate is so close at hand?”

Buttar argues that impeachment proceedings before the 2020 ballot could make things uncomfortable for Republican senators, “particularly those up for reelection.” 

But Kondik questions the assumptions behind this approach: “I would ask the candidate to provide evidence that millennials are clamoring for impeachment and are willing and able to mobilize in a non-general election setting to demand it.”

Related front page panorama photo credit: Adapted by WhoWhatWhy from Gage Skidmore / Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0) and Justice Democrats.


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