Responding to Donald Trump's tweet about his colleague Kirsten Gillibrand, Bob Casey this week became one of eight Democratic senators to say that the president "should resign." Back home in Pennsylvania, this has quickly emerged as a flashpoint in his 2018 reelection campaign. Republicans see a blunder that they can capitalize on, and even some in the senator's party think he went too far.
• Casey's GOP challenger Lou Barletta, a congressman who represents the Hazleton area, accused him Thursday of not focusing on the issues that directly impact the lives of everyday Pennsylvanians. "The people of Pennsylvania elected President Trump," Barletta said in a press release. "The election is over. Senator Casey should spend more time fighting for Pennsylvania's workers, securing our borders, giving working-class families a tax break, and fixing our health care system that's hurting our seniors instead of trying to undo the election that Donald Trump won. The American people are tired of people playing politics. They want people who will put them first and fight for them."
• Many veteran operatives and elder statesmen in the Democratic firmament worry that engaging in this fight is not the way to win in 2018. They think Hillary Clinton blundered by trying to turn last year's election into a referendum on Trump's baggage and boorish behavior. They worry that Democrats won't fully capitalize on Trump's unpopularity if they're perceived as overplaying their hand. They're nervous that the conversation over whether Trump should step down has sucked up too much political oxygen, possibly at the expense of the tax debate
• which a lot of these Democrats believe they can win since so many voters already see the GOP bill as a giveaway to the rich at the expense of the middle class.
Ed Rendell, the former governor of Pennsylvania and chairman of the Democratic National Committee, said it's very hard to ask Trump to resign when all the accusations of sexual assault against him were out in the open before the 2016 election. "The American people knew this, and they voted for him anyway," Rendell said in an interview. "If there were any new allegations, that might be something different. But they knew it, and they voted for him."
"It's something that makes people think Washington's gone nuts: Everyone's asking everyone to resign," he added. "I think the guy should not be president. I think he's mentally unstable. I think there are things we know about what he did to impede the [Russia] investigation that might justify his impeachment. . . . But we've got problems in North Korea and all sorts of other problems at home. I don't think that advances the ball."
Rendell said the only fair way to address the claims would be for Congress to have a hearing on each of them. "That would tie the presidency up for a couple of months, and I don't think anyone wants to do that," he said. "If Trump is guilty, he should not be in public office. But how are we going to adjudicate that? . . . I think this is more posturing. I don't think it will have legs by the time we get to next November."
• For his part, Casey doesn't see the position he staked out as particularly risky amidst the #MeToo moment. "President Trump's documented history of sexual harassment and assault should have been disqualifying during last year's election," the senator said in a statement. "His offensive verbal assault against Senator Gillibrand demonstrates he still doesn't get it. And while he should resign, we know he won't. I support a congressional investigation in order to hold him accountable for his actions."
• But Casey is the only senator from a state Trump carried last year to say he should resign. The other seven hold safe seats in blue states: California's Kamala Harris, Vermont's Bernie Sanders, Hawaii's Mazie Hirono, Oregon's Jeff Merkley and Ron Wyden, New Jersey's Cory Booker and New York's Gillibrand.
That leaves 40 Democratic senators, including Chuck Schumer, who have avoided taking that position. Several have staked out a middle ground: calling for hearings to explore the claims of the more than a dozen women who have accused Trump of improper conduct or sexual assault. The president says they are all liars.
"Look, he's not going to resign. So let's not play games," Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., told HuffPost on Tuesday.
Rep. Nancy Pelosi has bent over backwards to quash talk of impeachment. The minority leader was asked at a news conference this week if Democrats will investigate sexual harassment allegations against Trump if they retake the House. "When we win the House, what we're going to do is pass a big jobs bill right away," she replied. "Then build, build, build - build the infrastructure of America."
The specter of 1998 looms large for "Chuck and Nancy." Americans felt the GOP overreached with the impeachment of Bill Clinton and punished them in that year's midterms. Schumer defeated a Republican incumbent, and Pelosi's home state of California elected a Democratic governor for the first time in 16 years.
• But these leaders and their members face intense pressure from their base to take a harder line on Trump, even if it risks alienating the middle-of-the-road voters that the party needs to take control of Congress in the midterms.The liberal blog ThinkProgress has been bird-dogging senators this week, for example, in an apparent effort to pressure them into calling for Trump's resignation. They broke the Casey news and have suggested that Democratic lawmakers are being hypocritical by calling for Al Franken to go but not Trump. Billionaire Tom Steyer has angered Democratic leaders by pouring millions into ads calling for Trump's impeachment that many smart operatives see as counterproductive.
• Part of the messaging challenge is that most Americans just don't want to oust Trump from office, despite an approval rating in the mid-30s. A PRRI poll in October found 4 in 10 Americans want Trump to be impeached and removed from office, but 56 percent said he should not be. Seven in 10 Democrats supported impeachment. These numbers were little changed from when they asked in August.
The Washington Post-ABC News poll conducted last month that focused on the Russia investigation asked whether Trump had likely committed a crime, and 49 percent of Americans said yes. Asked whether they thought there was solid evidence, only 19 percent said there was.
• Matt Bennett, a co-founder of the center-left group Third Way and a senior official in Clinton's White House, proposes an 80-20 rule for Democrats. "Our view is that every Democrat has to follow their conscience in how they discuss Trump and determine the proper call to action should be - resignation, investigation, impeachment, etc.," he said. "But by Election Day 2018, with control of Congress now clearly in the balance, 80 percent of what voters hear from Democrats better be about what they will do to ensure that everyone, everywhere has the opportunity to earn a good life. That means they can talk Trump 20 percent of the time. But the focus should be on opportunity. Doug Jones and Ralph Northam didn't win by calling for impeachment or resignation. Pretty soon, Democrats on the ballot in November will need to become laser-focused on their voters' lives."
• Democratic strategist Kenneth Baer argues that it was not so much coal miners who threw the election to Trump in 2016 as middle managers in exurban Columbus, Milwaukee and Philadelphia. "When it comes to Trump, all of his faults were on display and he still won," said Baer, who founded the progressive journal "Democracy" and served as the associate director of the OMB under Barack Obama. "There were all these other factors involved, but when the New York Yankees play my son's little league team and it goes to extra innings, the Yankees aren't doing something right. We should have blown him out, and part of the reason why we didn't is that there was real anxiety and pain. And the message that was coming out was one that centered too much on social issues, which these voters feared wasn't addressing what they cared about.
"They felt like things weren't getting better in their lives," he added. "We need to demonstrate how this president and his people have not made their lives better, but they've actually hurt them and made their lives harder. . . . I fear that the voters who are going to decide who controls Congress in 2018 and the voters who are going to decide the presidential election in 2020, from what we can see, by and large, aren't going to be moved by these social issues. The overall message for us is going to have to be: What has this guy done for you? And what are we going to do for you?"
• Buttressing the concerns of some in the Democratic establishment, Republicans seem eager to brawl with Casey over whether Trump should resign. GOP operatives see this as an opportunity to gin up their fractured base and portray the senator as more liberal than most Pennsylvanians believe he is. The National Republican Senatorial Committee called it more evidence of a "lurch to the far left."
"Someone should tell Bob Casey that the 2016 election is over and the American people, including nearly 3 million Pennsylvanians, elected President Trump," said NRSC spokesman Bob Salera. "Pennsylvanians are sick and tired of Bob Casey's toxic brand of partisanship and deserve a senator who will fight for them instead of playing political games."
The Pennsylvania Democratic Party responded that Barletta defended Trump when the "Access Hollywood" tape came out last year and has not condemned Roy Moore in Alabama or Blake Farenthold in Texas. "Numerous women have come forward to confirm the predatory behavior described by Donald Trump on the Access Hollywood tape," said Max Steele, a spokesman for the party. "Senator Casey believes victims of sexual harassment and assault deserve to be heard, believed, and not called liars."
• G. Terry Madonna, the director of the polling program at Franklin and Marshall College in Lancaster, Pa., predicts that Casey's position will help him appeal to white-collar voters in the suburbs of Philadelphia and that it won't stop him from also talking about issues that appeal to blue-collar voters outside the population centers. "The 'burbs have become increasingly important to the Democrats, as they have lost the support of the working class voters in the Southwest and Northeastern parts of the state," Madonna said. "Casey has done well with the working class in past elections. That might not sit well with them. . . . Casey has many connections with those voters, unlike many urban Democrats. Casey does support Trump on trade . . . He always stresses bringing back manufacturing jobs. . . . Many here and elsewhere still support Trump."