Democrats are gambling that keeping the focus on the Capitol Hill riot with their impeachment trial will crush former President Donald Trump and divide his party’s base rather than cast Democrats as the drivers of partisan vitriol and division.
Political strategists warn the gambit could backfire on the left. They say it is a misstep for Democrats to use a week or more of the chamber’s floor time on a trial that appears destined to end in acquittal while other important business — possibly another COVID-19 relief package — is put on hold.
David Schultz, a political science professor at Hamline University in St. Paul, Minnesota, said it would have been better for the Democrats to let Mr. Trump fade away.
“With the trial, he potentially has the chance to dominate the news cycle again and he gets to tell his side of the story. With an acquittal likely, he then claims that he has been vindicated,” he said. “Yes, twice impeached but twice acquitted and then come out looking very partisan and vindictive.”
Censuring the former president would be the better move, he said, so Mr. Trump doesn’t have an opportunity to respond.
“The censure goes down in the history books along with Trump’s election loss and history writes his record. This is far more devastating than impeachment and another acquittal,” Mr. Schultz said.
A test vote this week made clear that Democrats likely can’t get more than a handful of Republicans to support a conviction, leaving them far short of the 67 votes need to convict.
“To do a trial knowing you’ll get 55 votes at the max seems to me to be not the right prioritization of our time,” said Sen. Tim Kaine, Virginia Democrat. “Not only will we fall short but we would use the time for something that we could be using for COVID relief.”
He said the trial could be completed quickly but the top priority should be confirming members of President Joe Biden’s cabinet and focusing on the pandemic.
Mr. Kaine is also exploring if there’s support in his party to censure Mr. Trump, a formal reprimand.
Sen. John Thune, South Dakota Republican, said censure is “hypothetical” at this point and, with the impeachment trial going forward, it is unlikely there would be support for it.
Democratic leaders insist that conducting an impeachment trial is their party’s “responsibility.”
“We should go forward,” said Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois, the chamber’s No. 2 Democratic leader. “We cannot escape history.”
In the test vote, five Senate Republicans sided with the chamber’s 50 Democrats to move forward with the trial.
The Republicans backing the trial were Sens. Mitt Romney of Utah, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, Susan Collins of Maine, Ben Sasse of Nebraska and Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania.
“For 45 Republican senators to vote for a spurious constitutional objection to the coming impeachment trial was deeply, deeply irresponsible,” said Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer, New York Democrat. “Only five Republican senators were willing to take a principled stand against this reckless and ill-advised effort.”
The impeachment trial is set to begin the week of Feb. 8. It could last for weeks.
The political risk involved in the trial is underscored by Mr. Biden and White House officials refusing to weigh in on its propriety.
“Democrats run the risk, I think, of overstepping politically,” said GOP strategist Amy Koch, who previously made history as the first female majority leader of the Minnesota Senate. “There is just going to be a move by Republicans that this is done, this is over. Let’s deal with these other issues.”
Voters could view the impeachment trial as politics as usual in Washington rather than passing legislation to improve their lives.
“There is more downside for the Democrats,” she said, noting the GOP’s has little to lose after losing every lever of power in Washington. “We are already in trouble. We have a lot of reckoning to be done.”