House speaker Nancy Pelosi reportedly plans to announce a formal impeachment inquiry of President Donald Trump over allegations that he leaned on Ukraine to investigate Joe Biden.
This ends about a half a year of Pelosi steadfastly insisting that as much as she believed Trump had violated the law, impeachment was not the right remedy.
You may recall that throughout the spring, a lot of liberals and Washington columnists believed that Trump had met his match in Pelosi. In January, Neera Tanden, president of the Center for American Progress Action Fund, declared: “Nancy Pelosi beat Trump at his own game — and she’ll do it again and again.” CNN’s Chris Cillizza concurred: “Pelosi beat Donald Trump at his own game.” In February, the Baltimore Sun labeled Pelosi “Trump’s worst nightmare.” In May, Politico explored “Why Pelosi is so good at infuriating Trump.”
Does it still feel like Pelosi is beating Trump these days?
Pelosi must wake up every morning wondering how she ended up spending most of 2019 as the biggest obstacle of impeaching a president she detests. For the first half of the year, she kept telling her caucus to wait for the Mueller report to be complete. When it became clear that the Mueller report wasn’t going to change the political dynamics around impeachment, she tried to get her party to focus completely on beating Trump at the ballot box. Impeachment polled badly, and Senate Republicans wouldn’t sign on anyway, meaning the president would not be removed from office. Impeachment might well increase Trump’s odds of reelection.
But even longtime allies, such as House Judiciary Committee chairman Jerrold Nadler, stopped seeing it that way. Perhaps with his eye on the history books or just facing too much pressure from his Manhattan constituents, Nadler kept pursuing an inquiry that Pelosi wanted to see fade away. She kept reminding her caucus that the freshmen in swing districts would likely lose their seats if the House voted to impeach Trump, an assessment that some freshmen in swing districts appear to no longer find so compelling.
Nadler may have felt additional pressure from the fact that Democratic control of the House hasn’t dramatically curtailed the actions of the president or his behavior. The Trump administration ignores subpoenas, refuses to turn over documents, claims executive privilege even for figures who never worked in the administration, orders staffers not to testify, and drags out court fights. House legislators probably won’t even be able to get access to Trump’s tax returns before the 2020 election.
Meanwhile, in the long term, it’s possible that the split decision in the 2018 legislative elections — Democrats winning the House, Republicans slightly expanding their majority in the Senate — worked out better for the GOP. Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell has turned the U.S. Senate into an assembly line for confirming conservative judges — 152 judges so far! Even if Democrats beat Trump in 2020, they’ll be fighting with a heavily conservative judiciary for decades to come.
There’s no evidence that the Democratic victories in the 2018 midterms chastened or humbled Trump in the slightest. After the election, Trump said that the Republicans who were defeated lost because they didn’t embrace him and his policies enough. If anything, Trump is less constrained than ever in his personal behavior and statements — even more provocative, even more incendiary, even more outrageous and unpredictable. Which force constrained Donald Trump’s decision-making and actions in the Oval Office more: Democratic control of the House, or White House chief of staff John Kelly?
Pelosi had the difficult but necessary job of telling progressives things they didn’t want to hear: Impeachment wasn’t popular. There was no plausible way that 20 Senate Republicans will join 47 Senate Democrats and vote to remove the president. (Democrats might need more than 20; they shouldn’t be so certain that West Virginia’s Joe Manchin would vote to remove the president.) The most likely way to end the Trump presidency was to beat him at the ballot box on November 3, 2020.
Now, with the allegations that President Trump tried to strong-arm Ukraine into launching an investigation of the Biden family, Pelosi is relenting. But unless the newest allegation is a game-changer in public opinion, Pelosi’s objections still stand. Impeachment still isn’t likely to be popular, particularly with the American people rendering their own verdict on Trump in about 13 months. Impeachment is probably still going to increase the risk of those swing-seat freshmen getting defeated, at least a little. And the Senate still isn’t going to have 67 votes to convict.
Could this all turn out well for Democrats? Sure, a public-opinion divide that has seemed ironclad since Trump’s inauguration could suddenly break in favor of impeachment. Those freshman House Democrats could hold onto their seats. The Democratic nominee could beat Trump in 2020. Democrats may well feel confident about those outcomes being likely.
Then again, they felt confident about the 2016 presidential election, too.
If a political party absolutely must do something that is likely to hurt them, it’s best to get it done quickly and try to have it receding in the rear-view mirror by the time the next election rolls around. If House Democrats absolutely needed to vote to impeach the president, to communicate to future generations that they opposed this president with every option they had, they could have done so in January. Instead, Pelosi spent much of this year angering and antagonizing her usual allies . . . and now they’re probably going to do what she tried to prevent all summer anyway.
Like the protagonist in an ironic O. Henry story, months of struggle and painful acrimony with traditional allies have left Pelosi in the exact spot she tried to avoid.