Tonight’s Democratic presidential debate will be dominated by two urgent issues: the House of Representatives’ inquiry into the possible impeachment of President Trump, and Trump’s decision to withdraw US forces from northern Syria.
Impeachment and Syria should produce a high degree of unity among the 12 presidential contenders on the stage. However, the surface agreement masks complex political calculations.
All the Democratic candidates, including those who did not qualify for the October debate, support the impeachment inquiry.
Among the last to support congressional removal of the president was former Vice President Joe Biden, the target of Trump’s alleged efforts to convince the Ukraine government to conduct an investigation.
Impeachment is popular with Democrats, and is increasingly supported by independents. A Fox News poll taken last week showed a majority of Americans favor Trump’s impeachment and removal.
Two-thirds of those polled by Fox, including 40 percent of Republicans, agreed that it is inappropriate for Trump to ask foreign governments to investigate allegations against political rivals.
Both Republicans and Democrats are outraged by the president’s decision to withdraw troops from northern Syria, allowing Turkey to attack Kurdish forces on its border.
We should hear a chorus of denunciations of Trump on the Democratic debate stage, but the real intrigue will be what the candidates say to Biden and how the vice president responds.
One would think that the presidential challengers will rally behind Biden, who shares with Hillary Clinton the honor of being the object of Trump’s solicitation of foreign assistance. Each candidate knows that he or she could be the next victim.
Furthermore, it is in the Democratic Party’s best interest that Biden remain a principal contender for the presidential nomination, at least until after the House approves articles of impeachment against the president. Biden’s viability magnifies the severity of Trump’s alleged misdeeds.
Ironically, Trump’s attacks on Biden and his son Hunter Biden, who took a seat on the governing board of a Ukrainian gas company while his father was vice president, strengthen the former Veep’s claim that he is the Democrat whom Trump fears most.
This presents Biden’s rivals with a dilemma. If Trump wants to knock Biden out of the race, they will not want to do Trump’s dirty work by ganging up on the vice president.
But if they give Biden a pass this time around, his campaign, which has received flagging donor support, could regain momentum.
Also, though Biden’s performance in earlier debates has not been stellar, to say the least, he should be helped by the sudden prominence of foreign policy issues, on which he has the most experience of any presidential candidate.
At the same time, Democratic candidates far behind in polling and fundraising will be tempted to make headlines by questioning how the vice president could allow apparent family conflicts of interest in Ukraine and elsewhere.
To be sure, there are risks in attacking Uncle Joe – just ask Julian Castro, the former HUD secretary who broached the issue of Biden’s age in the last Democratic debate.
And, the vice president is perfectly capable of undermining his own candidacy. Indeed, observers wonder why Biden hasn’t taken full political advantage of the Ukraine scandal, given that the facts of his involvement in seeking the removal of a corrupt Ukrainian prosecutor are on his side.
Regardless, events surrounding impeachment and Syria are likely to overshadow anything that takes place at the debate.
With more whistleblowers and fact witnesses willing to give evidence to House committees investigating Trump, the ever-widening Ukraine affair has the potential to take down not only the president, but also Pence and/or members of Trump’s cabinet.
And then there is the circus surrounding Rudy Giuliani, Trump’s personal attorney, who has conducted his own foreign policy in Ukraine with the help of associates arrested as they were trying to leave the country.
Given the incompetence and corruption on display, we may yet see a new set of presidential debates – among Republicans.
Fletcher McClellan is a political science professor at Elizabethtown College in Elizabethtown, Pa. and a regular contributor to the Pennsylvania Capital-Star, which first published this essay. Follow him on Twitter at @McleleF.