Politics & Policy

Does Nancy Pelosi Really Want to ‘Lock Him Up!’?

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi speaks at her weekly news conference on Capitol Hill, April 4, 2019. (Yuri Gripas/Reuters)
This is just a game.

Oh, the games people play!

So, Speaker Pelosi (a.k.a. “Nervous Nancy”) says she wants to see President Trump behind bars. “I want to see him in prison,” the speaker told a group of senior Democrats. That’s the part of Pelosi’s statement that is getting all the attention — the second part.

Democrats would prefer not to discuss the first part.

The speaker started out by saying, “I don’t want to see him impeached.” She was prompted by Jerry Nadler, the Judiciary Committee chairman, who has made it known that he very much does want to see the president impeached.

Well, Jerry knows impeachment will go nowhere. And Nance does not actually want to see the president in prison.

So what’s going on here?

The speaker is saying she wants Trump locked up because she knows it is safe to say that. That is, it’s never going to happen.

See, the speaker has a quandary. The Democratic base is not exactly numerous, but it is loud, moneyed, and energetic. And it badly wants Trump impeached.

But then there’s the other two-thirds of the country, which includes an awful lot of Democrats who cannot abide the president but are dead set against impeachment, either because they think it would be bad for the country or because they know it would be bad for Democrats.

There are about 41 Democrats who hold seats in districts won by Trump in 2016. There are presently about 59 Democrats who are calling for the president’s impeachment. Don’t try a Venn diagram on this. You’ll come up empty.

The Democrats who want to start impeachment proceedings are mainly hard lefties who are in very safe seats — the seats that, as Mrs. Pelosi tartly observes, a glass of water could win if it had a “D” on it. These districts are disproportionately woke. They want Trump impeached yesterday. They expect the fellow travelers they send to Washington to get it done. They’re getting angrier that it hasn’t been done yet.

Meantime, the Dems in Trump districts do not want to hear about impeachment. Their constituents not only don’t want Trump impeached; they don’t want to hear about it anymore — not impeachment, not collusion, not obstruction, not Mueller. No mas! They were open-minded about Russiagate. They were anxious, like the rest of us, to find out what Mueller’s probe would come up with. But now that it’s come up with bupkis, they want to move on.

Don’t misunderstand, “move on” does not mean these people are already envisioning a second Trump term. Sure, many are. But most of these folks are just sick of Russia. They don’t care about Mueller’s Obstruction Epic. They’d rather the country’s attention were turned to things that are relevant to them — which are not necessarily things that favor Republicans.

From the speaker’s perspective (and mine, for what it’s worth), Team Trump is way overconfident about reelection. Maybe it’s too much of that “Electoral College landslide” Kool-Aid. I’m glad the president won, but I try always to remember that he had to pull an inside straight to do it. If a little over 70,000 votes spread across five counties in three states had gone the other way — which is nothing, about a half-point swing, no more — he would have lost.

Trump won by the skin of his teeth against a candidate who was just flat awful, so personally flawed that she was not in a position to exploit Trump’s flaws. And yet, if she had worked just a tad harder, she would have won anyway.

He may not get as lucky in his opposition next time. You say you think the Dems’ field is weak? You’re whistling past the graveyard. Whoever comes out of their primary is going to be their candidate in a closely, deeply divided electorate. He or she does not have to be FDR; just a little bit better than Hillary may do the trick — not a high bar.

So I’m thinking: Pelosi figures 2020 is the Democrats’ race to lose.

You’re thinking: Not so fast. The economy has been great. Some polling shows Trump’s numbers up, and he may even be making inroads in traditional Democratic voting blocs. Plus, because of the age and health of some of the justices, the Supreme Court may be a big issue again. That certainly helped Trump last time around.

I hope that’s right — but I doubt it. The electorate is a lot more tribal than it used to be; I don’t know if a good economy helps as much as it used to (I don’t remember a sluggish one hurting Obama too much). I wouldn’t put too much stock in poll numbers until Trump has a known opponent. And I’m not sure the Supreme Court is an issue that always cuts in favor of Republicans, the way national security used to. It may be that, last time around, conservatives were more animated because Justice Scalia’s seat was at issue, so a Democratic nominee would have turned the court sharply left. If that’s the case, then the Court may animate Democrats more in 2020 — if President Trump, rather than a Democrat, decides who would replace Justice Ginsburg or Justice Breyer, that could turn the court sharply right.

Pelosi is calculating that, if the election is about the issues that are on the table now, the Democrats will win. To the contrary, the surest way to lose is to impeach the president.

She can’t just come out and say that, because too many influential Democrats want Trump impeached. She has to say something to appease them. So she says she’d like to see him prosecuted.

She knows it’s not going to happen. Not only does the Justice Department guidance forbid it while Trump is in office; as we discussed here last week, the Justice Department brass, which would have to approve charges, does not subscribe to the Mueller report’s very expansive interpretation of obstruction law. There is not a clear criminal offense; and Attorney General Barr is right that a president should not be charged unless there’s an obvious crime — you don’t want to tear the country apart over something that is merely arguable or requires a novel construction of the law.

So Pelosi is urging the thing that she knows cannot possibly happen. It at least makes her sound like she has the quantum of loathing for the president demanded by her base. She is worried the alternative would be to trigger impeachment proceedings, which Democrats cannot win because the Senate will never have the two-thirds supermajority needed to convict and remove the president. She fears that would cost Democrats a very winnable 2020 election — one in which, if they play their cards right, they might take the White House and Congress.

But wait. If Democrats cannot win impeachment, then why is Nadler pushing for it?

Because he runs the Judiciary Committee, from which articles of impeachment would be considered and approved. That is, if Pelosi gives the thumbs-up, we would be treated to The Impeachment Show Starring Jerry Nadler.

By the way, Jerry’s district — running from Columbia University through the Upper West Side and down to the Village before heading to Borough Park — is so blue he can’t conceivably lose it. Unless he’s up against one really strong glass of water with a “D” on it.

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