If there’s one thing we’ve learned in national politics over the past several years, it’s that the issues we think will matter to voters are not always the ones that do come the election.
Media firestorms can change the public attention’s at any moment, while new policy ideas can catch on fast. Medicare-for-all was hardly discussed before catching on in recent years with a significant part of the Democratic Party. Abolishing ICE had a quick rise on the left. And Donald Trump brought back talk of trade policy in a way others hadn’t for years during the 2016 campaign.
So, what might be some of the new topics that will emerge and shape Democrats’ presidential primary in 2020?
I have one prediction: whether or not President Trump should be fully prosecuted and spend the rest of his days in a jail cell after getting ousted from office (through a vote, impeachment or resignation).
That might sound radical now, but just wait. As the news of Michael Cohen’s plea deal develops, it is becoming more and more clear that Trump was absolutely involved in many of the criminal acts in the lead-up to the 2016 election. People in Trump’s orbit are getting immunity to talk with federal investigators and Robert Mueller’s probe. The National Enquirer apparently kept a vault of information related to Trump’s payoffs to keep damaging stories quiet.
And it appears that the investigations are starting to reach into Trump’s old business dealings, certain to be rife with corruption and illegality. That’s all to say nothing of the obvious obstruction of justice Trump has attempted with Mueller’s work or the personal profits Trump’s businesses have made out of his presidency.
At some point over the next year or two, the full extent of Trump’s crimes may become known. And he may well be forced to resign, face impeachment or just plain get defeated in 2020.
But what happens to him then?
Does Trump, like Richard Nixon before him, get pardoned by his successor (a Republican if he resigns, likely a Democrat if he does not) in order to let the country heal and move on, as was Gerald Ford’s intent? Or should Trump be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law, even if it means a former president behind bars, in order to set an example and dissuade future presidents from acting so recklessly with their power?
It’s a legitimate question. How such a conversation within the party would play out is probably a different story.
Here’s how I envision it would happen: some liberal thought leaders will present a comprehensive case of why Trump should be prosecuted after leaving office, regardless of the political division it would cause, in order to protect American democracy from future wanna-be dictators or criminals. Many stridently-partisan Democrats will run with it and start chanting “Lock him up!” without really understanding or explaining the nuances of the legal or institutional argument. More cautious Democrats will knee-jerkingly react to that and blast the idea, worried that Democrats are becoming too like Trump’s supporters or that the party may turn off moderates with divisive ideas. Click-bait websites (and maybe the Russians) will inflame the debate for fun.
Essentially, like all too many intra-party arguments among Democrats, both sides will simply talk past each other without really considering the merits of either’s case.
Caught in the middle of it all will be Democrats’ 2020 field of candidates. Do they pledge to direct their administration to pursue all of Trump’s crimes? Do they simply call for the process to play out on its own? Do they argue that simply getting Trump out of office is enough, and that they prefer to be a national unifier by ending the special prosecutor’s work?
One would think that one possible candidate likely to embrace full prosecution would be Michael Avenatti, who knows the legal case against Trump better than anyone and whose clients’ lawsuits helped lead to Trump’s biggest problems. But he was non-committal on the matter when asked by Starting Line earlier this week.
“It depends on the facts and the evidence,” Avenatti said. “I don’t want to give examples because I’m afraid that I would disclose too much if I gave examples … We have to be very careful that we don’t carry out vendettas as political parties, but at the same time the rule of law has to be respected. People can’t carry out transgressions of the rule of law and get away with it.”
It’s not hard to see how other Democrats could latch onto the issue to make headlines and stand out from the rest of the crowd (on either side of the equation). And there’s already plenty of track laid in national, left-leaning discussion over this presidency to back putting Trump in jail.
Shaming Trump Administration officials into unemployment following their work at the White House has become a strongly-held position on the left. Writers and activists on social media have argued that there must be real, lasting consequences for people who work for a administration that courts and engages in white nationalism. Otherwise, it’s acceptance in American society will continue to grow.
The same argument can easily be transferred to Trump himself and future presidential hopefuls: if there are no serious, personal consequences for candidates who collude with foreign enemies to defeat their opponents, others will be tempted to do it in the future.
And we’ve already seen Democrats with possible national ambitions promote ideas that party leadership worries goes too far. Tom Steyer has run countless TV ads about impeaching Trump through his Need To Impeach organization. As I wrote earlier this year, that message struck a nerve among rank-and-file Democrats.
Beyond what merits such a case has, we’ve also seen plenty of times where there seems to be no position too far to the left or too strident in its anti-Republicanism to get rejected in left-leaning social circles.
So, don’t be surprised if come the Iowa Caucus, a major line of debate emerges in the Democratic race of whether Donald Trump should be locked up after his presidency ends.
by Pat Rynard