Still about beating Trump

By Jules Witcover

Amid all the chatter over which of the 20-plus Democratic presidential candidates for 2020 are most “progressive,” the elephant in the room remains Donald Trump. The question is which of them is best qualified and politically positioned to beat him next year.

The upshot of Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s uneven testimony Wednesday was that Trump will remain in office through his first term and thus will only be ousted only by one of the 20 Democrats at the ballot box.

More than 90 Democrats in Congress are still calling for Trump’s impeachment, despite House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s strategy of slow-walking more fact-finding against him to build a stronger case for his defeat.

Skeptics are drawn to conclude that her best option is to hold off any indictment by the House that would lead to a vote on conviction in the Senate, still controlled by the GOP and thus certain to fail. Such an outcome theoretically could toss a life preserver to Trump and enhance his prospects for re-election.

Pelosi therefore is obliged to go through the motions of building a case against the president of the sort that persuaded Republicans in the House and Senate in 1974 that they had no recourse but to call on President Richard Nixon to resign in the airtight Watergate scandal against him.

In that historic encounter, however, the tape-recorded evidence from within the Nixon White House was so convincing and definitive of his personal cover-up of the burglarized Democratic National Committee that he had no other option. Close friends in the Senate such as Barry Goldwater told him he didn’t have the votes to beat impeachment, and so he fled into retirement tot his California retreat.

In the case of Trump, circumstances are quite different. For starters, no such incriminating tapes have been found or even suspected of existing. Republicans in Congress remain solid behind him, or at least fearful of risking their political futures in resisting his loyal flock.

His continuing talent for rallying his base to fever pitch was demonstrated recently in his jingoistic assaults on the four Democratic congresswomen. The crowd at a North Carolina rally responded to Trump’s taunts at Rep. Ilhan Omar of Minnesota with cries of “Send her back!”

Most public opinion polls today find Trump’s support nationally plateauing below 50 percent, with Democratic 2020 hopeful Joe Biden running well ahead of him and a few other Democrats doing well in early survey matchups. In the early campaign preliminaries, the Democrats so far are focusing on their intramural combat, leaving it to later to go after Trump if one or more of them appears likely to be his 2020 opponent.

Biden has drawn most of the intramural fire as an old moderate-liberal throwback compared to more self-styled progressives of the present. Trump meanwhile seizes the old Republican rant about “socialism,” that first cousin to “communism,” to wrap himself in a cloak of white nationalism.

Even as the prime goal of the oversized Democratic presidential field for 2020 remains the defeat of Donald Trump, he appears so far to be getting a free ride of sorts as the 20-plus Dems vie with each other, with Biden as much a target as the incumbent president.

Biden has been largely turning the other cheek to biting Democratic criticisms of his 36 years in the Senate, but with little comment about his eight years as Barack Obama’s vice president. He promises heading into this week’s televised Democratic debates not be so “polite” while enduring attacks from the likes of Sens. Kamala Harris of California and Cory Booker of New Jersey, both poised to cut into his polling lead.

But that advantage appears to be based on a wide view that Biden is the best-known contender in the field and best able to confront and take down Democratic Enemy No. 1. Whether he can maintain that position will depend on his ability to run the gauntlet in his own party against all the others striving to elbow him aside.

Jules Witcover’s latest book is “The American Vice Presidency: From Irrelevance to Power,” published by Smithsonian Books. You can respond to this column at

By Patricia Older

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