So now progressives are furious at Nancy Pelosi for not being more like Newt Gingrich. Yes, the circumstances today are radically different from 1998 in one big way: Donald Trump deserves to be impeached, and Bill Clinton didn’t. But maybe Pelosi recognizes a way in which, for now at least, they’re the same.
Back in October 2017, I wrote a column suggesting that it was getting to be time for Nancy Pelosi, Steny Hoyer, and James Clyburn to move along. If they take back the House in 2018, I wrote, let them have a victory-lap term, and then they should hand the reins to the next generation.
Subsequently, during the heat of the election, when “my opponent will vote for Nancy Pelosi” was a GOP heavy-breathing pitch, I ventured here and there that this was a real issue in some of these swing districts, and liberals were wrong to dismiss it as such.
On Twitter and among friends, I was mostly told that I was crazy and possibly sexist. Nancy Pelosi, people insisted with the gravest certainty, is an infallible genius!
Today, a lot of these same people are telling me, and the world, that Pelosi is guilty of the worst sort of moral cowardice. Wow, that was fast.
It was unpopular to critique her then, and it’s unpopular to defend her now, so I guess I’m not making many friends with my Pelosi columns, but yes, I’ll offer some words in her defense on the impeachment front. I mount my case in two parts.
Part one: She is first and foremost a legislative leader. She’s not the moral cynosure of the Democratic Party, or the leader of a movement. She’s a legislative leader—and one with a majority to protect.
That majority was not won by AOC and Ayanna Pressley. Nothing against them. They are impressive people, especially AOC, with all the horrid crap she has to endure from the right. But their districts would be Democratic even if they had never gone into politics.
Pelosi’s majority was won by Elissa Slotkin in Michigan’s 8th congressional district (Cook rating R+4), Abigail Spanberger in Virginia’s 7th (R+6), Conor Lamb in Pennsylvania’s 17th (R+3), Andy Kim in New Jersey’s 3rd (R+2), Kim Schrier in Washington’s 8th (tossup), and 20 or so others like them. It would be irresponsible, extremely fallible, and very non-genius-y for a consummate legislative leader not to think about how impeachment would impact those districts.
And play that out another couple steps. These people all won by a few points. They won independents and swing voters. What if the House Democrats move ahead with impeachment even though doing so never had majority support of the public, especially among independents? In a very recent CNN poll (pdf), independents disapprove of Donald Trump’s job performance (although kind of narrowly, 49-44 percent), but they oppose impeachment by 59-35 percent. And, of course, what if the effort ultimately fails, because the Senate will never convict him?
If that’s the reality, all impeachment has done politically is imperil the House majority. It is one person’s job to think really, really hard about that, and that person is Nancy Pelosi.
But, and I hear you saying it already: That doesn’t have to be the reality. The Democrats should see their job as trying to change the reality so that those numbers among independents flip to something more favorable toward impeachment.
This is part two of my argument: They’re doing that. Not as fast as most people want. But they are trying. Six different committees are attempting oversight. They’ve won two major court decisions (pending appeals), involving Deutsche Bank and Mazars, Trump’s accounting firm, and if those are upheld and actually start producing documents, the impact could be dramatic. Next week, they’re going to hold contempt votes on Bill Barr and Don McGahn. That is going to be a big deal.
Of course, that vote might not change anything. And that is a huge problem, but it’s one that for now is one the Democrats can’t do much about. They can levy fines on Barr and McGahn. But someone will pay them. These people are shameless—well, Barr is; people are still holding out hope that McGahn has a conscience and might appear someday, especially since he’s an ex-official and there’s nothing Trump can do to stop him.
So far, House Democrats have been met with 23 refusals to come testify from Trump administration officials, and 98 refusals to respond to or slow-walking of document requests. I challenge anybody to tell me what they’re supposed to do about that. This is an important point that a lot of people seem not to want to think about. In 1973, Richard Nixon ordered his aides to cooperate with the Senate Watergate Committee. Today, Trump orders a stonewall. That alone makes the situations very difficult to comparet. There’s little the Democrats can do about it except take the matter to the courts, which they have, and wait to see what they say.
Actually, there is one thing they could do. They could have much more aggressive messaging, with, for example, daily or at least weekly press conferences merely reminding Americans of some of the specific allegations of obstruction in the report. They could be calling some Republican former prosecutors (some of the 1,000-plus who signed that letter) to say that Trump obstructed justice. They could be thinking up more dramatic ways to keep Trump on the defensive and to drive the news coverage. They could be impeaching Barr. They could be doing more to shame McGahn. Calling John Dean to testify, as he will soon, could be good theater, depending on what Dean says.
But if you’re looking for Nancy to be like Newt was toward Bill in 1998, forget it. She’s far shrewder than Gingrich, and she’s not going to do what he did and run an impeachment hearing that only partisans support (that is the way in which the Clinton impeachment and any such effort today are, so far, the same). She’s not going to shoot and miss.
So let the Democrats who want to say “impeach!” say it. And let them build public support for impeachment. But let Pelosi play her long game. I suspect (though I don’t know) that she thinks Trump totally deserves to be impeached, but she’s not going to do it until she is seen as having to do it. She has usually shown she knows what she’s doing, as many of her critics in this moment have always insisted.
Trump obviously fears Pelosi's instincts, and rightly so. Maybe liberals should trust them a little more here.