As February dawned, the fear of many Democrats was that impeachment was ruining their favorite senators’ chances to replace the man in the White House. The time their heroes spent chained to their desks in the U.S. Capitol as mute jurors in the trial, some griped, was time not spent in coffee shops and legion halls and wherever else voters can be found in Iowa and New Hampshire.
They need not have worried.
Impeachment duties did not stop Amy Klobuchar from surging, and it certainly hasn’t held back Bernie Sanders, who got the most votes in both states. True, Michael Bennet has dropped out. And yes, Elizabeth Warren had a lackluster Tuesday night. But both of those senators spent more time than the competition in New Hampshire, yet still earned fewer votes.
The biggest loser, however, may be Joe Biden, which was exactly what President Trump wanted all along. Biden wasn’t investigated by Ukraine, but impeachment subjected him and his son Hunter to a prolonged proctological examination that seems to have taken a toll.
Autopsies are not performed on living patients, and the Biden campaign clings very much to life. The onetime front-runner still seemed wounded Tuesday night when he fled to South Carolina before New Hampshire results were reported. Biden finished fifth, a nightmare scenario for a former vice president who promised no fewer than five times he would win the Granite State.
There are myriad reasons for Biden’s slow start, among them his propensity for committing gaffes, but as liberal writer Peter Beinart posited before the New Hampshire primary, impeachment hurt someone, and it wasn’t Trump.
“By keeping Hunter Biden’s business dealings in Ukraine in the news,” the New York University professor wrote in The Atlantic, Republicans “have turned them into a rough analogue to Hillary Clinton’s missing emails in 2016 — a pseudo-scandal that undermines a leading Democratic candidate’s reputation for honesty.”
“The impeachment effort and the Republican counterattack against it,” Beinart added, “have largely accomplished Trump’s goal.”
The Trump campaign agrees, in part.
No president wants to be impeached, but no other president has used impeachment to his electoral advantage either. Trump has made the most of it by using his constitutional woes to further animate his speeches, fundraise millions of dollars and drive his always faithful base into an unprecedented frenzy.
And while he never got his requested Ukrainian investigation (and China didn’t deliver either, even though the president asked its leaders nicely — and on the White House lawn, no less), attention, little of it good, has been paid to the business practices of the Biden family.
“This will go down as the worst political miscalculation in American politics,” Tim Murtaugh told RealClearPolitics in January as more than 7,000 Trump supporters filled the Drake University arena for a speech by the president. Does it help Trump? Does it hurt Biden? Ahead of the Iowa caucuses, the president’s campaign communications director answered yes to both questions.
“To the extent that it is forcing the media to talk about it, sure, it has been beneficial,” Murtaugh said. After all, Senate Democrats couldn’t accuse the president of trying to force the Ukrainians into investigating the Bidens without journalists also mentioning what he wanted investigated.
The business dealings of Hunter Biden have become common knowledge as a result. And a Ukrainian oil and gas company has become nearly a household name — at least among Trump supporters. As reported by every national paper and cable news channel, he took a job on the board of Burisma while his father was vice president. Joe Biden later, Trump alleges, improperly pressured the Ukrainian government to fire a prosecutor who at one time was investigating the company.
Republicans regularly question why Hunter Biden was serving in that capacity, why he was paid as much as $50,000 a month despite speaking not a word of that country’s language and having no experience in the field. Even more to the point, why didn’t Joe Biden put an end to an arrangement that raised eyebrows even within the Obama administration?
Trump asked for an investigation, and House Democrats impeached him for it, accusing the president of abusing the power of his office by withholding U.S. aid to force Ukraine’s hand. The fallout, Murtaugh told RCP, has only helped the president’s campaign. It’s filled their coffers and organized their grassroots, he said: “Every time the media and Democrats go into a frenzy on impeachment, we interact with voters more online and our fundraising goes through the roof.”
It is not clear whether Democratic voters saw the flames that Republicans were fanning around the early front-runner or if other factors led to his poor performance in Iowa and New Hampshire. But the impeachment drama coincided with Biden’s precipitous drop in the polls. He led the RealClearPolitics average through much of the previous year before dropping hard first in Iowa and then in New Hampshire.
And the hits keep on coming. There are stories not just about Hunter Biden’s dealings in Ukraine but also in China, as well as questions about plum positions he got on cushy boards around Washington, D.C.
There were cracks in the candidate’s façade as a result. When Savannah Guthrie asked him about Ukraine, Biden lashed out at the NBC anchor, telling her, “You don’t know what you are talking about.” An Iowa voter accused him of abusing his power during the Obama administration to protect his son. Biden called the man “a damn liar.” The whole thing, he said again and again, was “malarkey.”
From the White House vantage point, what made this all so delicious was that Democrats did this to their own guy: Biden was felled by friendly fire. The main question in Republicans’ minds is whether it was deliberate or accidental. “It was out of Trump’s control,” a former campaign aide familiar with the president’s thinking told RCP. “Pelosi made the conscious decision to end Biden’s campaign when she filed those articles of impeachment. She knew what she was doing.”
Others aren’t so sure. “I think the story is less whether or not Trump got what he wanted and instead how foolish the Democrats were,” a former senior White House official told RCP. Republican voters are already inured to allegations of corruption made against the president, the source continued, and Democrats have already made up their minds. By impeaching the president over Ukraine, they didn’t change that calculus either way. But they necessarily turned up the volume on allegations against the former vice president.
“Another way to look at this,” the official said, “is that [Adam] Schiff was aiming at Trump but shot Biden’s campaign instead.” House Democrats must be asking themselves, the source speculated with obvious glee, “My god! Why didn’t we stop ourselves?”