Pelosi Wisely Denies Dems a Path to Impeachment -- for Now

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House Speaker Nancy Pelosi sounds like a woman who wants her party to win the White House next year, like someone who wants her moderate, centrist members to get re-elected in a Democratic majority in 2020, like someone who wants to avoid dragging a polarized nation through something painful that would further destabilize a paralyzed government. And the problem is -- what, exactly?

Pelosi brought the hammer down this week: No more impeachment talk, we’re not interested. Liberals howled and -- clearly disappointed -- Sean Hannity told his viewers Tuesday that “Nancy Pelosi’s speakership is literally tonight on life support.” Actor Rob Reiner was moved to show support, lest the Hollywood-wingers begin carrying torches in the street, tweeting: “Trust Pelosi. Unless inescapable crime is revealed, keep powder dry ’til 2020. Then destroy the Liar.” A GOP operative on Trump’s 2020 campaign told CNN it was “really smart” of Pelosi because why “energize the president’s base when there’s an election coming up and you can win that?”

But Democrats from swing districts, and Trump districts, rejoiced. Struggling to convince voters they’re working hard -- on expanded background checks for gun sales, and a democracy agenda focused on electoral reforms and voting rights -- they can’t break through the noise about criminals connected to the president, pardon dangles, presidential tweetstorms, a national emergency and the anti-Semitic remarks of their Democratic colleagues. These “majority maker” Democrats would rather impale themselves on a fence than respond to questions about an impeachment their voters oppose. Pelosi’s dictum allows them to change the subject -- Grandma told us no.  

The shrewd choice wasn’t the easy one, because the burgeoning progressive furor will only grow with each new Trump-related revelation, seeking to push past her stated threshold. Her specific dismissal of impeachment was: “Impeachment is so divisive to the country that unless there’s something so compelling and overwhelming and bipartisan, I don’t think we should go down that path.” Watch for many Democrats to find new developments in any investigation involving President Trump both “compelling” and “overwhelming.”

The Republican National Committee won’t make it easy either. Following Pelosi’s announcement, spokeswoman Kayleigh McEnany asked in a statement for every presidential candidate to respond to it: “Do they agree with the Speaker who stands in opposition to baseless impeachment charges, or will they risk fracturing the country by bowing to the radical elements in their party who want to disenfranchise the American people and overturn the legitimate and lawful result of the last election?”

Many have argued that Trump has already met the threshold for the remedy created by the founders to preserve and protect the Republic. Democrats – indeed, Speaker Pelosi -- may later be held responsible for a terrible new precedent that placed the president above the law.

In his case for impeachment, Yoni Appelbaum wrote in The Atlantic that Democrats cannot dither. “With every passing day, Trump further undermines our national commitment to America’s ideals. And impeachment is a long process. Typically, the House first votes to open an investigation — the hearings would likely take months — then votes again to present charges to the Senate. By delaying the start of the process, in the hope that even clearer evidence will be produced by Mueller or some other source, lawmakers are delaying its eventual conclusion.”

David Leonhardt made basically the same argument in a Jan. 5 New York Times op-ed titled “The People vs. Donald J. Trump,” describing how the president has already: used the presidency for personal enrichment, violated campaign finance law, obstructed justice and subverted democracy. (The piece’s subtitle was “He is demonstrably unfit for office. What are we waiting for?”)

Yet Pelosi, raised in a political family, served while Republicans made their impeachment mistake in the ’90s with President Clinton, and when she was speaker the first time, she ignored liberals urging to her to impeach President George W. Bush.  She has been there, knows what not to do and has the T-shirt. Another speaker might lead the party off a cliff, but Pelosi is well aware that impeaching Trump by a party line vote in the House, to see the Senate acquit him and public sentiment turn against Democrats, means they could help re-elect him. If that happens, her party may as well pack it in and go home for good.

Pelosi knows there is only a slim chance Republicans will ever support impeaching Trump. Remember when House impeachment manager Lindsey Graham wanted us to know this was not about “punishment,” but about “cleansing” the office? LOL. Yup, Graham told us all back then the president didn’t have to be convicted of a crime to lose his job because “impeachment is about restoring honor and integrity to the office.” The good news for Democrats is they don’t have to force GOP senators into a painful impeachment trial to call out their hypocrisy. Should the special counsel or the Southern District of New York conclude the president has obstructed justice, the Democrats can just run ads reminding voters that Graham joined Roy Blunt, Richard Burr, Mike Crapo, Mike Enzi, Chuck Grassley, Jim Inhofe, Mitch McConnell, Jim Moran, Rob Portman, Pat Roberts, Dick Shelby, John Thune and Roger Wicker in voting to impeach President Clinton for obstruction of justice.

The speaker also knows there is no other lens through which to assess impeachment except a political one.  The president and his team -- led most visibly by his TV lawyer, Rudy Giuliani -- have said numerous times they consider the only true threat he faces to be political, and not legal, since a president can’t be indicted in office. Maintaining enough support in the Senate to stave off conviction in a trial is their end -- trashing Robert Mueller, the FBI and the Department of Justice is the means. 

For now, Pelosi wants to beat Trump out of office, in November of 2020, fair and square. Of course, anything and everything could change between now and then. If Republicans don't like what they find out in the special counsel’s report, through multiple oversight hearings the House Democrats will continue to hold, or the investigation by the Southern District of New York -- and they actually decide they should rid themselves of Trump before he loses -- then they will make impeachment bipartisan. And then they would make Pelosi right.

A.B. Stoddard is associate editor of RealClearPolitics and a columnist. 

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