Yes, President Donald J. Trump should be impeached and removed from office. He is a cancer on the body politic, a malignant contagion ripping through the civic fabric, a danger to democratic institutions. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and her deputies, especially House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff, have done a brilliant job of making clear Trump’s corruption.
But Democrats can’t win back the Oval Office by running on impeachment (as several Democratic presidential candidates seemed to realize in last week’s debate). They have to campaign on the bread-and-butter issues, such as health care, that consume the lives of average voters. Democrats who recently won gubernatorial contests in two southern states — crimson-red, Trump-loving territory — provide a lesson for any presidential candidates willing to pay attention.
Kentucky’s Republican incumbent, Matt Bevin, was one of the nation’s most unpopular governors — a science skeptic who boasted of intentionally exposing his children to chickenpox and an abrasive sort known for his contemptuous remarks about large blocs of voters, including teachers. But those features of his governing style might not have been enough to bring him down had he not also attacked the state’s Medicaid program.
Under its previous governor, Democrat Steve Beshear, Kentucky had expanded its Medicaid program in 2013. As part of the Affordable Care Act, states could expand their Medicaid programs with 90% federal funding, yet the vast majority of Republican governors refused to take advantage of it. But among Kentucky’s poor and working-poor patients, the expansion was quite popular. It has been credited with reducing the state’s population of uninsured from 20% to 6%.
As governor, Bevin not only promised to cut back Medicaid, but he also attacked its recipients, saying in a July debate that he was “appalled” that 1 in 4 Kentuckians received their health insurance through Medicaid. It was not an unusual view for a wealthy Republican politician, but it was a recklessly injudicious remark, nevertheless.
Bevin’s opponent, Democrat Andy Beshear (son of the former governor), bludgeoned Bevin with his opposition to Medicaid expansion and promised to strip away Bevin’s onerous work requirements for the insurance program. Even Trump — who traveled to Kentucky days before the election to campaign for Bevin — couldn’t save the incumbent. Beshear won.
A similar dynamic was at play in Louisiana, where the gubernatorial election was held days later. Down in the Deep South, Republicans have swept most statewide offices and dominate most state legislatures. But Louisiana is a rare exception to the GOP’s complete domination. It elected a Democratic governor, John Bel Edwards, in 2016, and he promptly expanded Medicaid.
Wealthy Republican businessman Eddie Rispone, who challenged Bel Edwards for re-election, was politically savvy enough to avoid saying he would roll back the Medicaid expansion. Instead, he made clear he would “freeze” the program while rooting out “fraud and waste,” favored GOP rhetoric to justify cutting social programs.
Bel Edwards, for his part, ran ads featuring voters talking about their serious health problems — and how they depended on their insurance through Medicaid to help them pay for the treatment they needed.
Trump traveled to Louisiana three times to campaign for Republicans, pulling out his standard incendiary rhetoric against Democrats. With Rispone at his side during his final trip, the president said, “A vote for John Bel Edwards is a vote for radical leftists,” and “John Bel Edwards supports illegal aliens, not American citizens.” Trump clearly had Bevin’s loss in mind when he practically pleaded: “You got to give me a big win, please, OK.”
It wasn’t enough. Bel Edwards won re-election by a comfortable 40,000 votes.
Trump will be on the ballot in 2020. Republicans in the House and Senate have made it clear they will defend Trump, no matter how egregious his behavior or far-reaching his criminality. While the Democratic-controlled House will vote to impeach, Mitch McConnell’s Senate will not vote to remove him.
Nor can Democrats take Trump’s broad unpopularity for granted. Recent polls from battleground states show that the president remains popular and will be hard to beat in the Electoral College. But a Democrat can win if he or she keeps issues such as health care front and center.