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OPINION

Get ready for impeachment and a primary campaign

By DAVID VON DREHLE | The Washington Post | Published: November 18, 2019

“I’ve noticed him ordering a heck of a lot more salads.”

So says Faiz Shakir of Sen. Bernie Sanders, the Vermont independent whose recent heart attack has perplexed some voters in the Democratic primaries. As manager of the Sanders presidential campaign, Shakir wants to reassure those voters that the 78-year-old candidate is in it for the long haul, even if that means munching kale. In addition to taking long walks and wearing natty sweaters, the rumpled revolutionary is being advised to comb his hair occasionally in the effort to project a robust glow.

But now it appears the senator’s vigor won’t be tested as sternly as anticipated. Sanders is likely to spend much of the primary crunch time in a comfortable chair along with five of his fellow candidates whose day jobs are in the U.S. Senate. Republicans control the Senate schedule, and they have figured out that a nice, long, polarizing impeachment trial will drain time and attention away from the Democratic hopefuls while keeping President Donald Trump squarely in the spotlight — which, if you haven’t noticed, is exactly where he likes to be.

The seemingly inevitable trial — rules for which will also be set by the Republican majority — will be a new twist on presidential campaign season. We’ve never done impeachment and reelection at the same time in modern political history. While this is unknown territory, I think it will alter the battlefield in some important ways.

A trial that chews up most of January and February will do more for Sanders than a bushel of salad greens. His base of support is smaller than it was when the race began, but it’s all muscle. He has raised more money and draws bigger crowds than his competitors, which makes him a factor — though not a favorite — for as long as he remains viable. And, health permitting, Sanders is viable until Sen. Elizabeth Warren drives him from the race. One of those two will carry the banner of the Democratic left.

Parking Warren in Washington as an impeachment juror disarms her most potent weapon: her campaign chops. Folks who have only seen the Massachusetts senator on television might be surprised at her warmth and charm on the stump — qualities multiplied by the discipline and competence of her field staff. Given enough days in the retail politics of Iowa and New Hampshire, Warren is a good bet to beat Sanders two out of two, which would be devastating to his claim on the left.

The longer Warren is battling Sanders in a bidding war for the left, the more extreme her positions will likely become. Already, she has tripled her proposed wealth tax on billionaires. Her swings to the left will create more running room for a centrist alternative.

A long trial makes it less likely that former Vice President Joe Biden will be that alternative. Republicans will surely use their power over the Senate rules to allow the president’s defenders to put Biden’s son Hunter front and center. They’ll take the picture painted by the opening witnesses in the House impeachment hearings — of a luridly corrupt Ukraine with the gas company Burisma snout-deep in the public treasury — and demand to know why Hunter Biden was on that board of directors. That’s not what the Biden campaign wants to be talking about.

The trial also hurts Amy Klobuchar, Cory Booker and Michael Bennet, senators from Minnesota, New Jersey and Colorado, respectively. These aspiring alternatives to Biden need time on the trail and attention from the media if they are to make a breakthrough. Instead, they’ll be sitting glumly at their desks as the days tick by.

Is anyone helped? With his message of healing, Pete Buttigieg, the 37-year-old mayor of South Bend, Ind., will perhaps get a boost from a highly partisan and unproductive spectacle in Washington. Or maybe the entrepreneur Andrew Yang. Viewed that way, it begins to make sense that former Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick has decided to hop into the race.

So far, the cycle has not been kind to governors and former governors, as Jay Inslee, John Hickenlooper and Steve Bullock can attest. But Patrick has a couple of advantages over the others, and the trial might give him room to deploy them.

First, there’s New Hampshire. The Granite State is full of people who get their paychecks and their local news from south of the border, in Massachusetts. As a two-term governor, Patrick is already well-known and relatively popular. And second: A strong showing in New Hampshire would make Patrick a viable alternative to Biden for the support of South Carolina’s powerful African American voting bloc. Put those two together, and he’s in business.

I’m likely wrong about some of these thoughts and may be wrong about all of them. But the fact that they’re thinkable at all is a measure of how disruptive impeachment can be.

David Von Drehle is a Washington Post columnist. He is the author of “Rise to Greatness: Abraham Lincoln and America’s Most Perilous Year.”

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