You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

How Impeachment Could Reshape the Presidential Race

What it means for the senators stuck on Capitol Hill

Sean Rayford/Getty Images

Impeachment has yanked the three senators seriously competing in the Iowa caucuses back to Washington for a trial that could last weeks, with only Sundays off for good behavior. This past weekend, during what was probably their last unencumbered stretch of campaigning before the February 3 caucuses, all three reacted in characteristic fashion.

Elizabeth Warren grew emotional with nostalgia for her time on the campaign trail, but not so emotional that she missed an opportunity to make a dig at the free-spending Michael Bloomberg, who is skipping the early contests in Iowa and New Hampshire.

Bernie Sanders treated the whole matter as though it were a minor annoyance, much like the malfunctioning hand microphone at his Monday afternoon rally in Des Moines. 

And Amy Klobuchar (suddenly the queen of newspaper endorsements from the Quad-City Times to The New York Times) displayed a combination of the stoicism needed to survive a Midwestern winter and a dutiful sense of constitutional obligation. 

(They aren’t the only senators still in the race. Michael Bennet of Colorado also made stops in Iowa on Monday, but he is focusing his it-will-take-a-miracle campaign on New Hampshire’s February 11 primary.)   

The press scrum after a Warren campaign rally in Des Moines on Sunday began with the network embeds trying—and failing—to provoke the candidate into saying something that would prolong the silly-season controversy over whether Sanders actually claimed that a woman couldn’t be elected president.

I broke in to ask Warren how it felt to be just two weeks from the end of the road in Iowa after more than 100 campaign events in the opening-gun state. I do not often pose clichéd “how does it feel” questions, but Warren rewarded me with a paean to the small states where the presidential race begins.

She described campaigning in Iowa as “standing up in front of people and trying to give them a sense of who you are and what you fight for.” Voters there respond, she said, by “talk[ing] about their lives and the issues that matter to them. This is the give-and-take that truly should be at the heart of our democracy.” 

Then, by implication, Warren turned her sights on Bloomberg: “We can’t have a democracy that is all about TV ads and billionaires and sucking up to billionaires. We need a democracy like the kind I’ve been able to experience in Iowa for the last year. It has changed me. It has strengthened my faith.”

On Monday, Sanders began a rally of his own in Des Moines by announcing, “No one could have predicted it. But as all of you know, I will be going back to D.C. tomorrow. How long it lasts, I honestly don’t know. So I will not be able to be back in Iowa as much as I would like.”

Sanders often deploys the royal “we” while campaigning, with lines like “our campaign” and “our first day in office.” This time was no different. He initially used his speech in Des Moines to talk about how much he is depending on his movement and his volunteers in Iowa. But toward the end of the speech, Sanders channeled his inner Larry David and offered the equivalent of a raised fist at the heavens when he said, “I’m going to be stuck in Washington for God knows how long.”

Klobuchar, who seems to be making headway in Iowa after two newspaper endorsements and a poll showing her in double digits in the state, has the most to lose from being grounded by impeachment.

She has fewer prominent surrogates to campaign for her than, say, Sanders, who can send out Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez on his behalf, or Warren, who has the enthusiastic backing of former candidate Julián Castro. Klobuchar’s highest-profile endorser is former Vice President Walter Mondale, who, at 92, can no longer raise the rafters at every union hall in Iowa, as he did during his own 1984 presidential campaign.

But for all the political problems impeachment poses for her in Iowa, Klobuchar still took pains to portray the trial in patriotic terms. At a town meeting in Waukee, just outside of Des Moines on Sunday night, Klobuchar began by joking, “I told people that I’m a mom and I can do two things at once.”

Then she grew serious as she said, “There are only 100 jurors in this trial, and I have the honor to be one of them. In a way, when we are … juror[s] at an impeachment hearing, we represent the whole country. That’s why we’re there.”

It is easy to ridicule newspaper endorsements, especially when The New York Times does something as strange as endorsing both Klobuchar and Warren. But I wonder if the rules aren’t different in 2020, with Iowans desperately searching for cues and clues to decipher the Democratic field. The Quad-City Times covers the Mississippi River town of Davenport, the third-largest city in Iowa. And in an increasingly nationalized online media environment, The New York Times’ endorsement is more relevant than it used to be. 

There are some endorsements left. When the Des Moines Register announces its choice next Sunday, it could give one of the candidates a substantial boost right before the caucuses. (In 2004, another year with a knotted Democratic race, John Edwards parlayed a surprise endorsement from the Register into a strong second-place finish in Iowa.) For now, though, voters are still weighing the merits of each of the candidates. Questions at town meetings are almost invariably about issue positions rather than the raging media controversy of the moment. 

Of course, some outside topics do register with Iowa Democrats. Hillary Clinton’s attack on Bernie Sanders, published Tuesday morning in The Hollywood Reporter, may break through the noise. It is hard to ignore the most recent Democratic nominee (who is obviously a believer in the doctrine that revenge is best served cold) saying, “Nobody likes [Sanders], nobody wants to work with him, he got nothing done.… It’s all just baloney.”

But it would be a mistake to think that her comments will seriously dent Sanders’s support in Iowa. The obvious reason: Few of the Vermont socialist’s 2020 backers caucused for Hillary Clinton in 2016.

Each year, there are those who argue against starting the campaign season in two overwhelmingly white states, Iowa and New Hampshire. But something important will be lost when candidates begin the Flyover Campaign, racing from major media market to major media market after the South Carolina primary on February 29.  

Warren is entirely right when she talks about how bracing it is for presidential candidates to take questions from voters who can look them in the eye.

The tragedy is that four senators are now caught between the demands of participatory democracy, which would have the candidates campaigning hard in the early contests, and the demands of constitutional democracy—to confront a blatantly lawless president through impeachment.