Nancy Pelosi said in the Washington Post today that she did not support impeachment of President Trump. The move may come as a surprise to many on both sides of the aisle, but Pelosi is a shrewd politician who has hinted in the past that impeachment proceedings would not be forthcoming. While Pelosi’s decision will anger many on the left, not impeaching Trump is a sound political strategy that potentially has a bigger payoff than the short-term gain of winning an impeachment vote in the House.
“I’m not for impeachment,” Pelosi said in the Post. “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, because it divides the country. And he’s just not worth it.”
While the temptation to impeach the president is strong among Democrats, Speaker Pelosi seems to be looking at the big picture rather than the emotional gratification of embarrassing Mr. Trump and adding him to a short list of impeached presidents. Impeaching President Trump would allow Democrats to win a battle, but it might cost them the war, i.e. the 2020 presidential election.
The most obvious reason not to open impeachment proceedings is the lesson learned by Republicans when they impeached President Clinton: If you don’t have the votes to remove the president, impeachment is pointless and possibly counterproductive. President Clinton became more popular after he survived the attempt to remove him from office and remained a prominent Democrat elder statesman for two decades after leaving office on schedule.
In the case of President Trump, Democrats have the votes to impeach the president in the House, but they lack the votes to remove him from office in the Senate where Republicans retain a majority. Throughout all of Trump’s embarrassing behavior and executive abuse, most Republicans have stood by him. It is unlikely that many – or possibly any – Republicans would cross the aisle to vote to remove the president from office. In all likelihood, if Trump was able to withstand an impeachment attempt, he would become even more popular with his base and possibly with independents as well.
On the other hand, forgoing impeachment removes a major obstacle to electing a Democrat in 2020. If impeachment proceedings were begun, they would be an issue in the 2020 election. Democrats would be pushing the issue against prevailing political winds since 59 percent of voters recently told Quinnipiac that they opposed impeachment. The unpopularity of impeachment could be a drag on Democratic candidates up and down the ticket.
The decision not to impeach also removes a Republican talking point that could have been used to rally the base. A Democratic attack on the president, who remains popular in the GOP, would have spurred Republicans to circle the wagons in defense of the president. Without impeachment on the table, Republican voters disappointed in Trump’s performance might be more likely to stay home.
Further, Pelosi undoubtedly realizes that Donald Trump is his own worst enemy. Allowing President Trump to remain in office will mean that the eventual Democratic nominee faces a weak candidate. If Democrats were somehow able to impeach the president, Mike Pence, a much more capable politician and campaigner would become president. Pence would have a much greater chance of winning re-election than Donald Trump, whose approval is hovering in the low 40s.
Having said all that, there are risks to Pelosi’s strategy. As Jess Fields pointed out earlier, Pelosi may anger her own base and make it more likely that a radical Democrat is the eventual nominee. The conventional wisdom holds that Trump would fare better against Bernie, Kamala Harris, or other of the far-left Democrats than against the more moderate Joe Biden. Indeed, the Quinnipiac poll shows that two-thirds of Democrats support impeachment.
I’m not sure that impeachment makes a difference in this argument since Democrats should want to nominate the most liberal candidate who can win if they subscribe to a mirror-image version of the Buckley rule. Impeachment or no impeachment, Democrat voters are not going to repeat their 2016 mistake of sitting out the election. Not impeaching Trump won’t improve the appeal of second-tier Democrats to moderate voters, but it might make Trump more beatable, as discussed earlier.
Finally, there is the question of what happens if Donald Trump beats the odds a second time and is re-elected. In that case, assuming that Democrats hold the House and possibly capture the Senate, impeachment might be a more attractive option than it is now. With Democrat-led congressional investigations ramping up and the Mueller probe continuing, there might also be more evidence against the president that could even lead some Republicans to vote to remove Trump from office.
As I wrote two months ago, impeachment is not a smart move for the Democrats. Pelosi may be reviled by many on the right, but that doesn’t mean that she’s a dummy. She is a shrewd politician who is playing the odds with her eye on the bigger prize, namely putting a Democrat in the White House.
Originally published on The Resurgent