Assessing Nancy Pelosi’s Impeachment Wins and Losses
Pelosi opposed impeachment but then took charge of it. Photo: Andrew Caballero-Reynolds/AFP via Getty Images
The House vote to impeachDonald Trump made December 18, 2019 a red-letter day in American political history. The process continues in the Senate next month, but for House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, it’s the end of perhaps the greatest challenge of her political career. A full accounting of her strategy must wait until after November’s elections. But it’s already possible to identify some of the successes and failures from her handling of this unprecedented challenge.
From the moment Democrats retook control of the House in 2018, Pelosi has naturally been focused on the 31 members of her caucus representing districts carried by Trump in 2016. They constitute what experts call an “over-exposed” majority, reflecting the fact that gerrymandering and over-concentration of Democratic voters gives Republicans a built-in advantage in the fight for the House. And their manifest heartburn over the possibility of an impeachment fight earlier this year was the fundamental reason Pelosi opposed taking that step until the Ukraine scandal broke.
Yet Pelosi was under ever-more-intense pressure to join the rising ranks of House Democrats supporting impeachment, a trend that began to spike after Robert Mueller’s report went public in the spring, with a clear majority becoming pro-impeachment even before we knew about Trump’s conversations with Vlodymyr Zelensky. And even when the Speaker got on board with a formal call for an impeachment inquiry in September, there was quite a bit of progressive grumbling about her inclination to narrowly focus on Ukraine instead of supporting impeachment on a bigger sampling from the vast buffet of Trump’s misconduct.
Despite all these cross-pressures, Pelosi went into the actual vote with about as united a caucus as you could hope for given the difficultly of the decisions she had to make, the rebellious nature of Democrats, and the electoral exposure mentioned above. In the end, only two Democrats voted against the first article of impeachment, and three opposed the second article. (Tulsi Gabbard voted “present” on both.)
It’s unfair to treat this as something Pelosi could control, but still, her reluctance to go down the road of impeachment and then her decision to keep the indictment of Trump narrow was intended to improve the odds that Republicans – in Congress and around the country – might defect from his camp, or at least maintain an open mind. That really hasn’t happened at all.
Not a single House Republican voted for impeachment. Aside from basic positioning, it’s been remarkable how many members have shared the angry, confrontational tone of Doug Collins and the conspiracy-theory spinning of Devin Nunes during the committee proceedings. For a president forced on the GOP by seditious primary votes in 2016, Donald Trump goes into the Valley of the Shadow of Political Death that impeachment normally represents with an impressively united party. That’s true of the rank-and-file, too, if polls are accurate (a recent CNN poll had self-identified Republicans opposing Trump’s impeachment and removal by a 92/5 margin; Quinnipiac had it at 95/5).
And the ultimate Democratic goal of making Trump’s removal by the Republican-controlled Senate at least remotely possible has most definitely failed. Right now the most Democrats can hope for is that a few vulnerable Republican senators will join their Democratic colleagues in pressing for witness testimony that might strengthen the case against Trump. But even if that happens it could backfire by leading to the calling of witnesses Democrats really don’t want, like Adam Schiff or Hunter Biden. In any event, the kind of intra-party abandonment that forced Richard Nixon to resign shows no signs of developing with respect to the current president.
After Pelosi announced the formal impeachment inquiry in September, it was widely reported that she wanted to get the process out of the House and into the Senate by year’s end (or more precisely, by Christmas), despite all the procedural and political hurdles that crash schedule would involve. (Yes, House Republicans accomplished much the same thing in 1998, but then again, Ken Starr had done all the spade work on the case for impeachment well in advance). Pelosi pulled it off, even leaving Democrats a few more shopping days before the holiday.
The quick pace of impeachment proceedings have been part-and-parcel of the key Republican talking point that Democrats are recklessly rushing to judgment with a sloppy and incomplete case against Trump, while also trampling on the rights of the minority party to call its own witnesses and advance its own arguments. Democrats very plausibly counter that the White House made a more thorough investigation impossible by obstructing the appearance of witnesses and the release of documents (leading, in fact, to one of the two articles of impeachment). But inevitably, the “tyranny of the clock and calendar” that Doug Collins incessantly complained about was evident enough that impartial observers might conclude Pelosi just wanted to get the whole thing over with, perhaps in recognition of the foregone conclusion of a Senate acquittal.
That is, in fact, what some still-disgruntled progressives fear: that having lost her fight against impeachment, Pelosi went ahead with the quickest and narrowest inquiry she could manage, and then put the impeachment drive to bed early in tacit cooperation with Mitch McConnell, who plans a quick Senate trial that could begin and end in January.
Between the loud Republican narrative and quiet Democratic grumbling, this is something we will be hearing for a long time, certainly through Election Day.
Pelosi and other House Democratic strategists were concerned all along that impeachment would blot out the sky, obscure the kind of issue-oriented messaging that worked so well in 2018, and make 2020 – like 2016 – revolve too much around Trump’s personality and behavior and not enough around issues on which he and his party are unpopular. The Speaker’s eagerness to show that her caucus could “get things done” and deliver progressive accomplishments to key constituencies was nowhere more apparent than on the day when she announced the proposed articles of impeachment. She went straight from the morning presser on impeachment to another where she boasted of a deal with the administration over the details of Trump’s NAFTA reboot. It was either a mixed message or a we’re-ready-to-turn-the-page message (and considering Pelosi’s political acumen, you have to assume it was the latter). Now as the Senate takes over the impeachment process, House Democrats can return to their originally scheduled 2020 agenda full-time.
Obviously Trump will get at least half – maybe more – of the credit for the trade deal, and another mid-impeachment deal, on federal spending, helps him, too. After all, last year’s government shutdown drove Trump’s approval rating below 40 percent for quite some time. In general, a House Democratic focus on business-as-usual undermines the sense that Trump is a renegade president who is a danger to the Republic, and is being enabled by an irresponsible and corrupt Republican Party. The path-not-taken, of continuing high-level investigations of the president and his administration, will get more remote as 2020 goes by.
By making her focus the impact of impeachment on the 2020 elections, Pelosi has ensured that the results next November will be interpreted as a judgment on how she handled it. And we obviously don’t know yet how that will work out.
We do know that once she put her shoulder behind the wheel of an impeachment inquiry, public support for it went up notably. But we also know it leveled off, and in some polls, even fell back. The president’s job approval rating, probably the best pre-election-year measurement of his prospects for reelection, didn’t move much during the early phases of the impeachment proceedings, and now may be moving up a bit.
As 2020 proceeds, the two parties’ relative enthusiasm and likelihood to turn out on Election Day will be constantly assessed, and impeachment’s fallout will be weighed heavily. Perhaps it will all be a wash, or will be forgotten during the savage political warfare that will rage across the land between now and November. But more likely, the conventional story of the 2020 presidential race will begin with the impeachment proceedings in the House, as much as with the Iowans who will begin the process of choosing an opponent for Trump in February.
To come full circle, Pelosi will also be judged on the fate of her majority, and particularly of those Democrats voting for impeachment who are running for reelection in districts Trump won in 2016. Did impeachment tie their fates too closely to the national Democratic ticket, or to the progressives itching to take Trump down before voters could? Or did she successfully thread the needle by pursuing narrow and simple impeachment articles and ending the process quickly enough that swing-district Democrats had time to overcome any backlash?
I’d never be comfortable betting that Nancy Pelosi has made a mistake over anything that is within her power to accomplish. But the task of handling the impeachment of this strange president is hardly anything even her great experience could have prepared her fully to do.