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Larry Donnelly: Trump re-election in 2020 not a done deal, but Democrats face an uphill battle

The Democrats bowed to pressure on impeachment, but will it make a difference to the 2020 result?

Larry Donnelly Law lecturer, NUI Galway

ON THE DAY and hour Donald Trump was inaugurated in 2017, speculation raged as to whether he would become the third President of the United States to be impeached. 

Well, the many people I’ve spoken to who put their money where their mouths were and placed bets that the New York billionaire would suffer this fate received a nice Christmas bonus.

On a near party line vote in the House of Representatives, that body’s membership voted to impeach President Trump on two narrowly drawn counts relating to his conversation with the president of Ukraine.

The strong implication is that the delivery of foreign aid to Ukraine was conditional upon an announcement of an investigation into Joe Biden and his son Hunter’s prior business activities in the country.

9478 Nancy Pelosi Nancy Pelosi has reluctantly pursued the impeachment of Donald Trump. Source: Leah Farrell

Pelosi under pressure

This is not a course of action that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi wished to pursue. 

One of the wiliest political operators in the business, she has long recognised not only the reality that 2/3 of the Senate would not vote to convict the president, but also what the opinion polls currently indicate about the impeachment process: it could bolster the president and rebound on her Democratic Party ahead of a crucial election year.

Her uncharacteristically angry outburst at a reporter in a recent press conference and the stern admonition she delivered to her colleagues who cheered when the momentous votes were tallied suggest that her misgivings persist.

Democrats in a bind

The Speaker had no choice but to fire ahead with the impeachment process when the whistleblower came forward about the infamous

Ukraine phone call and the hard left of her party demanded the ultimate sanction. 

It is, of course, too late at this juncture, yet a censure motion would have been a far shrewder ploy, politically speaking.

Such a motion would have forced congressional Republicans to effectively endorse the president’s behaviour, which even his most ardent defenders – at least in private – have to admit was questionable.

Now there is wrangling over the looming trial in the Senate. 

Speaker Pelosi, seemingly acting on advice from Harvard Law School Professor Laurence Tribe, is determined not to deliver the articles of impeachment to the GOP-controlled Senate until its leadership agrees to conduct a fair trial in which Trump administration officials are called as witnesses.

She is wise to do so in the sense that the relatively small segment of the American people who will decide next year’s election might not appreciate something of a kangaroo court with, as Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has himself admitted, a biased jury doing the bidding of the president’s legal team. 

On the other hand, it is unlikely that anything will alter the verdict.

All eyes on 2020

Moreover, senators who are also presidential candidates, such as Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders, won’t be best pleased with uncertainty over the trial dates. 

They need to be in Iowa, New Hampshire et al campaigning, not in Washington, DC serving on a jury.

Presumably, they would prefer to have it wrapped up by mid-January.  The Iowa caucus is on the 3rd of February and the New Hampshire primary is scheduled for the 11th.

Perhaps the most disturbing aspect of the speechifying in the House ahead of the impeachment was that it only confirmed the hyper-partisan nature of American politics at present. 

The contributions from Republicans and Democrats alike were entirely predictable, devoid of nuance and driven almost exclusively by ideology, protestations to the contrary notwithstanding. 

The addition of a cult of personality around Donald Trump has added more poison to a polarised climate.

Lamentably, this polarisation and the lurch of the two parties to the left and right have been on full display in the Democratic presidential primary. 

Cast by the media as a battle between moderates, Biden and South Bend, Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg, and liberals, Warren and Sanders, the key voters in the states that matter will perceive them all as well outside the mainstream, particularly on the cultural issues that are often dispositive to their final decision making in the ballot box.

By way of example, when asked at a debate, not one candidate had the guts or political nous to affirm that the newly re-elected Governor of (deep red) Louisiana, John Bel Edwards, is welcome in the party. 

The governor is anti-abortion and pro-2nd Amendment, but genuinely progressive on a host of other issues. 

What sort of message does the candidates’ collective reticence send to men and women in Pennsylvania or Wisconsin whose views are more closely aligned to Governor Bel Edwards than to well-heeled Democratic donors on the coasts?

In terms of where the race to take the fight to Donald Trump is headed, the cliché “it’s anybody’s guess” has never been more appropriate. 

There are plausible scenarios in which any of the four aforementioned leading candidates could prevail.

And there is a great deal of uncertainty on the ground.

Too tough to call?

This writer resolved – after a rather dismal 2 out of 4 performance in forecasting the results of last month’s Dáil by-elections – to stop making political predictions.  But the answers to the following questions may tell the tale.

Will someone emerge from Iowa and New Hampshire with momentum and capture the public’s attention (here’s looking at you, Pete Buttigieg)?

If Joe Biden fares poorly in these first two contests, will his “firewall” in South Carolina and beyond hold up?

If Warren or Sanders falters and drops out early, could that give the one who remains an advantage, in light of the different dynamics of a battle between one leftist and two more moderate Democrats? 

Might the extremely wealthy former Mayor of New York Michael Bloomberg defy the odds and be a factor?

What impact will the proportional allocation of delegates and diminution in the role of the “superdelegates” have?

Looking past the primary, there is a narrative that Donald Trump will win re-election, provided that he isn’t removed from the White House beforehand. 

That alternately glib and resigned perspective, however, overlooks the fact that, in 2016, everything that possibly could have gone his way did against a terribly unpopular opponent. 

And even then, he won the presidency by less than 80,000 votes in three vital Electoral College states.

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Not a done deal

In short, given the state of play in late 2019, I suspect his re-election is more a 50-50 proposition. 

There is a long time between now and the first Tuesday of November. It’s important to remember the old truism: “events, dear boy, events.” At any rate, it’s going to be a fascinating year in American politics. 

I’ll be monitoring developments as best as one can from 3,000 miles away in this space. 

Politics aside, I hope 2020 is a great year for you all.  

But, before I go, I hope you’ll indulge me in ending on a personal note, with a tribute to my friend, Noel Whelan.  


macgill-summer-schools-2011 Noel Whelan passed away in July following a short illness. Source: Eamonn Farrell

I can’t write a year-end column about politics and not pay tribute to the real giant in Irish political commentary we lost in 2019.
To me, Noel was a friend, a colleague on the organising committee of the Kennedy Summer School which he founded and a collaborator on various endeavours.
He shared my belief in and passion for electoral politics.
The outpouring of sympathy and admiration from people of all walks of life in this country following Noel’s death showed both the high esteem he was held in and how significant a figure he was.
We miss him.
And as ever, our thoughts are with his family and close friends.
Larry Donnelly is a Boston attorney, a Law Lecturer at NUI Galway and a political columnist with TheJournal.ie.


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Larry Donnelly  / Law lecturer, NUI Galway

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