The problem is vexing: Donald Trump is arguably the most overtly corrupt president in American history. But his penchant for unbridled power and outright disgust for the democratic institutions designed to check it also make him among the most dangerous leaders to occupy the Oval Office. With Republicans too limply afraid of Trump to actually uphold their oaths of office, the burden of saving our republic has fallen entirely on Democrats, the nation’s last best hope for liberation from Trump’s menace.
And standing in the breach between Democrats’ constitutional duty and their fervent desire to safeguard the nation against a second Trump term to end all terms are Rep. Jerry Nadler of New York, chair of the House Judiciary Committee, and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, two veteran Democratic lawmakers who have served together for nearly three decades.
Nadler, with the support of a majority of the 23 Democrats on his committee, has privately made two impassioned arguments to Pelosi for initiating impeachment proceedings against Trump. Pelosi has rebuffed both advances. Even as the number of House Democrats on record in support of Nadler’s position has swelled to around 60, that’s “not even close” to a majority of the caucus, as Pelosi pointed out Tuesday during a Q&A at a fiscal summit in Washington.
Pelosi has admitted to fearing, as she did in 2018, that if Democrats don’t beat Trump decisively in 2020, he will contest the results, leading to a political crisis the likes of which the nation has never seen before. That has driven her cautious approach to impeachment, along with the unavoidable realization that Senate Republicans will surely decline to convict Trump even if House Democrats vote to impeach him. Pelosi reportedly told her caucus that she’d rather see Trump “in prison” than impeached, suggesting an electoral defeat next year that could pave the way for Trump’s criminal conviction after leaving office. During her public remarks Tuesday, Pelosi declined to deny making the comment. “When we have conversations in our caucus, they stay in our caucus,” she told CNN’s Manu Raju during the moderated discussion.
But Nadler is responding to the urgency of his committee members, many of whom believe that political expediency shouldn’t trump duty in the face of a president who is abusing his power and running roughshod over the Constitution. In fact, Trump’s across-the-board stonewalling of congressional oversight has nearly ground the panel’s investigations to a halt, though it did win a modest concession Monday from the Department of Justice for accessing additional materials related to the Mueller report. Nonetheless, the committee has come up entirely dry on securing the testimony of fact witnesses such as former White House counsel Don McGahn since the initial release of the redacted report almost two months ago.
Hearing from those witnesses is critical in the battle for public opinion that will almost surely end up in court. Nadler and his colleagues fear that they could lose the chance to secure public testimony if they are deprived of the ability to base their legal argument in the context of a formal impeachment proceeding. It’s a factor that also has a significant bearing on Pelosi’s electoral strategy: She too needs a boost in public sentiment against Trump’s corruption even as she works to convince voters that Democrats are committed to addressing their pocketbook issues.
Public sentiment is, in fact, moving in the direction of impeachment after Attorney General William Barr’s willful lies about Mueller’s report temporarily dampened enthusiasm for it. A recent CNN poll found that 76% of Democratic voters now favor initiating impeachment proceedings against Trump. A slim majority of Americans, 52%, also favor some form of accountability for Trump, including impeachment (22%), continued investigations into Trump (25%), or censure (5%), according to last week’s NPR/Marist poll. The minority of voters that say no further action should be taken, 39%, tracks perfectly with Trump’s loyal base and his approval ratings, which consistently hover at just over 40%.
But if Pelosi’s main hesitation is electoral, then the downsides of a demoralized Democratic base are a growing consideration. As New York Times columnist Jamelle Bouie writes: “We should consider the reverse as well: that a Democratic Party that plays with excessive caution — and keeps its base at a distance — is one that might demobilize its voters and produce the same conditions that helped Trump win in the first place.” Deflating the base is a particular concern among one of the Democrats’ most loyal voting blocks: African Americans.
Just for the sake of argument, if we were to reduce the opposing sides on impeachment down to electoral considerations only (which we shouldn’t), Nadler’s position is more likely to stoke the Democratic base heading into 2020, while Pelosi seems more concerned with an increasingly slim percentage of swing voters. And while conventional wisdom in Washington has always held up Bill Clinton’s rising approval ratings in the wake of his impeachment as evidence that the proceedings backfired on Republicans, the GOP barely paid any price at the ballot box.
As Ronald Brownstein points out in the Atlantic, even though congressional Republicans shed seats in both 1998 and 2000, their losses were modest enough that they maintained overall control of both chambers. Additionally, George W. Bush captured the White House, albeit with a boost from the Supreme Court, but Bush clearly hadn’t suffered a decisive political setback in response to Clinton’s impeachment.
In January 2001, almost exactly two years after House Republicans defied public opinion to impeach Clinton, the GOP controlled the White House, the House, and initially the Senate. (Within months, the Republican Jim Jeffords of Vermont would switch parties, shifting control to the Democrats.)
In fact, Al Gore senior strategist Tad Devine believes impeachment, and Trump’s fiery reaction to it will almost surely benefit the Democratic nominee. “If impeachment is done properly, then the Democratic nominee will be talking about it [next year] and not be running away from it in the general election,” Devine told Brownstein. “I don’t look at it as something that is going to derail a Democratic nominee. Just like we saw in 2000, an impeachment inquiry could very badly damage somebody who is associated with it,” he added, referring to Gore’s defeat.
At the time of Clinton’s impeachment, 35% of Americans supported it, according to Gallup. Polling on public support for Trump’s impeachment varies based on the way the question is asked. The NPR/Marist poll gave people several options for holding Trump to account, and 22% chose impeachment as the remedy. But the CNN poll found 41% support for impeachment when it asked, “Based on what you have read or heard, do you believe that President Trump should be impeached and removed from office, or don’t you feel that way?” That was up several points from 37% in April and 36% in March. Clinton’s job-approval rating at the time of impeachment, 63% in Gallup, also blows Trump’s consistent 40-ish percentile out of the water.
Much like Devine, current Trump detractor and former Bush strategist Matthew Dowd believes impeachment will help Democrats electorally. After the GOP Senate acquits, Democratic voters will want to “finish the job,” he said, while swing voters who might generally like the direction of the economy will be reminded of “all the things related to [Trump] that they don’t like.”
When asked on Tuesday about impeaching Trump, Pelosi declined to say whether she believed Trump had committed crimes, but offered, “My obligation is to do whatever we do in the most effective way possible.” If her goal is to ensure Trump isn’t reelected, then empowering her members to mount the most robust investigation possible should be one of the key drivers of the direction she takes the caucus. In fact, Pelosi often raises up a Lincoln quote that she says guides her approach to governing: “Public sentiment is everything.” In order to be effective in ousting Trump from office, Pelosi must pump voters full of facts rather than depriving them of the transparency they deserve.