Republicans have forgotten about swing voters
Lalalalala, Lindsey Graham can't hear you!
After complaining that congressional Democrats were not adequately transparent in the early stages of their impeachment inquiry against President Trump, the South Carolina Republican has announced his refusal to even read now-available transcripts from that very inquiry. "I've written the whole process off," Graham told CBS Tuesday. "I think this is a bunch of B.S." He reiterated the position Wednesday on Fox and in conversation with a reporter expressing astonishment that "former impeachment manager Lindsey Graham says he's not going to read the impeachment transcripts. Really?" Really, indeed.
This is a curious strategy — and yet we can only assume it is an acceptable strategy to GOP leadership. Graham is a senior senator and chair of the Senate Judiciary committee. He's a presidential favorite and golfing buddy. His cavalier attitude here is almost certainly not an intraparty rebellion — which means it may well be a portend of election strategies to come.
Graham's outright refusal to read the impeachment transcripts strikes me as odd for how it narrows his options going forward. Of course, I don't expect Graham would privately give serious consideration to a proposal to remove a Republican president from office. A plausible scenario in which a GOP-controlled Senate would do anything but acquit Trump in an impeachment trial is near impossible to imagine.
Yet what politicians say in public and private are rarely the same, and the political benefits of at least playing along with the impeachment inquiry seem manifest. Suppose Graham had said something more like this: "I think this is a bunch of B.S., honestly, and if I'm right, my Democratic colleagues should be ashamed of themselves for wasting the American people's time with partisan, backstabbing nonsense. But unlike the Democrats, I'm willing to give those on the other side of the aisle a fair hearing. I'll carefully review these transcripts, and I'll do my due diligence if this comes to a trial in the Senate. Any president should be held accountable for corruption — and any congressional caucus should be held accountable for biased, dishonest investigations like I expect this will be proven to be."
A statement like that has a lot of wiggle room. It casts Graham as a fair, impartial public servant willing, if necessary, to sacrifice partisan advantage on the altar of healthy democracy. In the improbable event that Trump is convicted in the Senate, it lets him insist he was on the right side all along. And in the event of acquittal or a failure to move to a Senate trial in the first place, it lets Graham get in plenty of anti-Democrat slams and demonstrations of loyalty to the president.
But that's not what Graham said. He pre-emptively refused to engage in the process in good faith, declaring it a "sham" he wouldn't "legitimize." He closed the door to, "We know Trump's innocent because we checked," and ran hard at, "We don't have to check because we know he's innocent."
There's certainly an audience for this tack, which will appeal to Trump loyalists and much of the broader Republican base. Negative partisanship is strong right now. Study results published earlier this year found four in 10 Republicans and Democrats alike believe those in the other party are "downright evil;" nearly one in five think they "lack the traits to be considered fully human;" and about the same proportion will say we'd "be better off as a country if large numbers of the opposing party in the public today just died." For those people and some less vehement partisans, Graham's brazen refusal to examine Democrat-elicited testimony against Trump will be received as a good and necessary stand for justice.
But what about everyone else? What about the independents and swing voters Republicans will likely require, perhaps including in reliably red states like Kentucky, to win in 2020? Independents are nearly evenly split on whether Trump should be impeached, which suggests they are less likely to be amenable to a hardline stance like Graham's that refuses to take the matter seriously. Where a deep-red Republican who opposes impeachment would object to even beginning this inquiry, an independent who opposes it could support completing the initial investigation so Trump's name is duly cleared.
Graham is walling himself off from that crowd, which may not make much difference for his personal re-election prospects but could prove detrimental to other Republicans if they follow his lead. He's betting either that he doesn't need their votes (again, I'm dying to see internal GOP polls in competitive states) or that they don't care enough about impeachment for his position to make a difference. Either is a big wager, and in refusing to read the transcripts, Graham has gone all-in.