Forget About Impeachment, Democrats. Focus on Policy Instead.

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- House Speaker Nancy Pelosi warned this week that President Donald Trump “is goading us to impeach him” in order to energize his supporters. It’s a new twist to the argument she has been making to her fellow Democrats: Oppose impeachment not only because most Americans are against it, but also because the president is for it.

There is an even better case to make against impeachment — and an anti-Trump message more broadly: It won’t help the Democrats win the White House.

The temptation for many Democrats is to keep the focus on Trump himself. That means continued hearings on Robert Mueller’s investigation and possible impeachment charges against Attorney General William Barr, if not the president. Many congressional Democrats see confronting the president as a matter of principle, and of course oversight of the executive branch is their institutional obligation.

But to do that effectively, they need to maintain their political support. Until fairly recently, a simple anti-Trump message was good politics, too; Democrats rode a wave of anti-Trump sentiment to win back the House just six months ago.

Moreover, looking ahead to 2020, the conventional wisdom has long been that the presidential election will be a referendum on Donald Trump — a referendum he was likely to lose. Trump has received historically low approval ratings for most of his presidency, despite relative peace and prosperity. No amount of good news, it seemed, could put a dent in his unpopularity.

Until now. As the economy has continued to improve, so have Trump’s approval ratings, reaching a record high of 46 percent last month in the Gallup tracking poll. That’s in the middle of the pack compared to recent presidents.

Forget About Impeachment, Democrats. Focus on Policy Instead.

Historically, presidents end up with a share of votes close to their approval rating. Given the slight Republican advantage in the Electoral College, that puts Trump within striking distance of re-election.

More troubling for Democrats, Trump’s approval rating on the economy is at 56 percent. During the first half of his presidency, it was difficult for Trump to claim credit for an economy that looked more or less like a continuation of the Obama years. As the expansion continues, however, voters are becoming more inclined to attribute the strong economy to Trump himself.

If this anti-Trump sentiment is already fading, then there is reason to believe it may be gone altogether 18 months from now. For Democrats, the key to winning the presidency will be making an affirmative case.

That’s yet another reason to want to avoid an impeachment spectacle: It would drown out any policy arguments Democratic candidates might want to make. In the absence of a policy debate, the strong economy would make a case for Trump’s re-election. Much as partisan Democrats might relish the idea of subjecting the administration to endless congressional hearings, doing so would play right into Trump’s hands.

There is a way forward for Democrats, and it comes from Italy. Just after Trump was elected, the Italian economist Luigi Zingales wrote a prescient column warning about the dangers of building an opposition around personal attacks. In the 1990s, Zingales had watched a mercurial, scandal-plagued billionaire rise to power on the Italian right. Silvio Berlusconi would go on to dominate Italian politics for almost two decades, becoming prime minister several times despite regular attacks on his bad behavior. Berlusconi’s opponents were able to defeat him only by focusing on policy.

To be fair, several candidates are doing exactly that, Elizabeth Warren most prominently. Whoever the Democrats choose, however, she has to be selling something new. As long as the economy and geopolitics stay on their present course, “Anyone But Trump” is not likely to be viable campaign strategy.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Karl W. Smith is a former assistant professor of economics at the University of North Carolina's school of government and founder of the blog Modeled Behavior.

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