After the 2016 election, Democratic leaders reached an all but unanimous conclusion: To defeat President Trump in 2020, they would have to do more than condemn his offensive behavior and far-right ideology, as Hillary Clinton had done. They would need, above all, to promote a clear and exciting agenda of their own.
They took that lesson to heart in the midterm elections and afterward, capturing the House of Representatives with a focus on health care and then attempting to impress the electorate by passing legislation on matters like campaign finance reform and the minimum wage. As Democratic presidential contenders pushed campaigns built on big ideas, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi resisted a chorus of calls for impeachment, even from some of her party’s leading 2020 candidates.
Yet 13 months before the next election, Democratic leaders are now steering into a protracted, head-on clash with Mr. Trump. By seeking the Ukrainian government’s help in tarring former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr., Mr. Trump left them no choice, they say, but to pursue an impeachment inquiry that could consume the country’s attention for months.
Ms. Pelosi has indicated she aims to move the process along with haste, in part to avoid an election-year conflagration, but the exact course of the inquiry is impossible to foresee.
All 19 Democratic presidential candidates now support the impeachment inquiry, and many Democrats are optimistic that voters will as well, because Mr. Trump is so unpopular and the allegations against him are grave and easily grasped. For now, Republicans are the party on the defensive, flummoxed by the cascading disclosures about Mr. Trump that have threatened to upend his re-election campaign.
But there is also a general recognition, at every level of the Democratic Party, that impeachment could complicate their candidates’ efforts to explain their policy ideas to the country and persuade voters they have a vision beyond ousting Mr. Trump. The party has been disappointed too many times, its leaders say, by betting that Mr. Trump’s violations of political and cultural norms would bring about his downfall.
On Friday evening, Ms. Pelosi declared at a conference of New Jersey Democrats in Atlantic City that she would not allow the 2020 election to become a campaign about impeachment. Insisting the inquiry “has nothing to do with the election,” she said the campaign would be fought on other terms.
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“That’s about facts and the Constitution,” Ms. Pelosi said of the impeachment process. “The election is about all of the issues and policies that we have a difference of opinion with the Republicans on, and they are very drastic — and they have nothing to do with impeachment.”
Ms. Pelosi has already advised the newest members of her caucus — the ones who secured the majority last year — that they will have to execute a careful balancing act in the coming weeks, to show voters in their districts that they can continue to pass important legislation. She is said to be particularly focused on a proposal to lower prescription drug prices that she unveiled last week, before the Ukraine saga began.
But even before impeachment, House Democrats were gaining little traction with policy bills that withered in the Republican-controlled Senate. Polls have shown their proposals to be popular, but they have been routinely overshadowed in the news by Mr. Trump.
There is little doubt that impeachment will become a singular obsession in the political world and dominate news coverage for as long as the inquiry is underway. A few early polls on impeachment suggest that public support for the inquiry is somewhat stronger than opposition to it, but those numbers could easily change in either direction as the process unfolds.
Diane Feldman, a Democratic pollster, said it would be difficult for the party to communicate with voters on issues besides impeachment for the duration of the process. But candidates up and down the ballot had to try to drive a message about policy all the same, she said.
“I think it’s worth the effort, but it’s a long shot,” Ms. Feldman said. “That we not put all of our eggs in the impeachment basket seems to me extremely wise.”
However, Ms. Feldman said, the impeachment process could also “add some clarity to risks that Trump presents to our national security and foreign policy” and sharpen the overall Democratic case against his re-election.
The task of balancing impeachment against policy priorities will be especially delicate for lawmakers elected last year, including dozens who won narrow victories in historically Republican districts. Democrats are defending a sizable number of seats that Mr. Trump carried in 2016, in parts of the country like upstate New York, Oklahoma City and northern Maine, where the impeachment issue is likely to stir backlash.
Congressional Republicans are likely to struggle in a different way, as they face pressure from their party’s conservative base to defend Mr. Trump even as he behaves in erratic or legally questionable ways.
Democratic presidential candidates are attempting their own juggling act, mixing denunciations of Mr. Trump’s actions on Ukraine with detailed policy promises. Mr. Biden, the candidate most directly connected to the impeachment uproar, has repeatedly denounced Mr. Trump but has declined to reorient his activities around responding to the president. Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, Mr. Biden’s leading competitor in the primary, has reminded voters this week that she was the first major Democratic candidate to demand Mr. Trump’s impeachment. But she, too, has not dwelled on the subject in her speeches, and she has indicated she would prefer to avoid a sprawling, open-ended process.
And at the same Democratic gathering in New Jersey where Ms. Pelosi spoke on Friday, Senator Cory Booker urged his party to avoid “partisan glee” about the prospect of impeaching Mr. Trump. Talking to reporters outside the event, he said Democrats should keep campaign considerations separate from impeachment: “It’s just something that I need to deal with in a very sober way,” he said, “away from politics.”
But Mr. Biden and Ms. Warren may be among the only Democratic candidates who can count on breaking through the din of impeachment with regularity, along with Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont and perhaps Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Ind. For the rest of the Democratic field, strategists say, the next stage of the primary race may have less to do with delivering high-minded policy arguments on the national level than courting voters in the early primary and caucus states with personal appeals — as an impeachment battle rages in the foreground.
Meredith Kelly, a Democratic strategist, said the experience of the last presidential race had not faded in the party’s thinking. A veteran of the 2018 campaign to seize the House, Ms. Kelly said Democratic candidates would have to both build a “methodical” case against Mr. Trump during the impeachment inquiry and also keep detailing “a proactive vision of what you stand for.”
“It was a lesson from 2016: You couldn’t only call out Donald Trump without your own positive vision for the country,” said Ms. Kelly, who advised Senator Kirsten Gillibrand’s presidential campaign. “You cannot stop talking about kitchen-table issues and your vision for the country.”
Democratic voters this week expressed a combination of enthusiasm for impeachment and anxiety about potential political complications — and, at times, a desire to stay focused on policy.
At Mr. Biden’s campaign stop in Las Vegas on Friday, Rick Carter, 74, a voter from Henderson, Nev., said he had been highly skeptical of impeaching Mr. Trump until the recent revelations about Ukraine. The newest allegations, he said, were “pretty clear, to the point.”
Still, Mr. Carter said he hoped candidates would continue training their attention on subjects like the cost of prescription drugs.
“I want to start focusing on what the American people need,” he said.
Geoff Garin, a Democratic pollster, said that even in the tumult of impeachment there were opportunities for Democrats to emphasize policy. He pointed to Ms. Warren’s campaign as one that was plainly “breaking through on policy” even amid Mr. Trump’s constant provocations.
“The House has passed a lot of bills that have gotten very little news coverage,” he noted. “But when members go home and have interactions with their constituents, they’re going to spend a lot of time talking about their legislation to have Medicare negotiate for lower prices and give all people the benefit of lower drug prices.”
And while the impeachment process unfolds, Mr. Garin added, Democrats could likely count on Mr. Trump not to deliver a broad, policy-based message of his own.
“Trump’s not really making any effort to do anything but rally his base on this,” Mr. Garin said. “And in doing that, I think he’s probably aggravating his situation with voters in the center.”
Nick Corasaniti reported from Atlantic City. Sydney Ember contributed reporting from Las Vegas.