OP-ED: Pelosi’s pragmatism on impeachment may backfire

Ramesh Ponnuru
Bloomberg News

Pragmatism can lead politicians to say the most peculiar things.

Take House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who knows that most Democratic voters want President Donald Trump to be impeached but that the electorate as a whole does not. This combination of political facts has led her to make baffling comments.

“I think impeachment is too good for him,” she said a few weeks ago. Several days later, she added that “the president is almost self-impeaching.” If you check out the Constitution, you’ll find that self-impeaching is … not really a thing.

By and large, the debate among Democrats has not centered on whether Trump has committed impeachable offenses. Even those who are reluctant to impeach seem, at least tacitly, to believe that he has. It has concerned, rather, whether acting on that belief is politically wise or morally obligatory.

The Democrats on Pelosi’s side of the argument say it is neither of those things. Other Democrats, such as Representative Steve Cohen of Tennessee, bitterly disagree, suggesting that political considerations would not move a patriot to hesitate to move forward with impeachment.

President Donald Trump and Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi of Calif., attend the 38th Annual National Peace Officers' Memorial Service at the U.S. Capitol, Wednesday, May 15, 2019, in Washington. Pelosi said Wednesday that the U.S. must avoid war with Iran and she warned the White House has “no business” moving toward a Middle East confrontation without approval from Congress. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

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Cohen is wrong to draw such a firm line between politics and patriotism. But Pelosi may nonetheless be missing something big about the politics of impeachment.

The Constitution gives Congress the power to impeach and remove presidents for “high crimes and misdemeanors,” but the definition of that term has long been a subject of dispute. Presumably, it means something more than “whatever a majority of the House and supermajority of the Senate believe justifies removing a president from office.” Otherwise, the Constitution could have dispensed with the phrase when granting the power.

The debate over the term creates room for judgment about what criteria members of Congress should use when considering impeachment. If different officeholders can legitimately reach different judgments about what constitutes impeachable behavior in a president, some presidential behavior may fall into a gray zone in which Congress may reasonably decide to move against a president but is not obligated in conscience to do so.

That’s a reasonable account of the congressional power to impeach, and something like it has to be true for Pelosi’s apparent position — that Trump deserves impeachment (or worse!) but Congress should decline to deliver it — to have any merit. Trump has to be in that zone, that is, where congressional removal is permissible but not required.

Only in that case could a congressman both take the Constitution seriously and weigh the kind of political considerations that seem to be moving Pelosi. Those considerations include the imminence of the next presidential election and the very low probability that Republican senators will vote in the requisite numbers to convict Trump.

Removing Trump from office by a congressional vote would in practice require an extraordinary degree of national consensus: a supermajority that is highly unlikely to materialize. The opposition to Trump could be much smaller and still defeat him in November 2020.

Add in the fear that the less likely route to ending the Trump presidency, impeachment, will complicate the more likely route, re-election defeat, and Pelosi’s preference appears to make sense. The president himself seems more eager to talk about impeachment than about his record on health care, implying that Democrats have available to them more politically potent lines of attack against him than those that rely on co-ordination with Russia or obstruction of justice.

But Pelosi may not be fully accounting for how impeachment would affect the 2020 election. Forget, for a minute, the polls (which in any case don’t show that a lot of on-the-fence voters will hold an impeachment attempt against Democratic candidates). Think instead about the shape of the campaign.

Presumably the Democratic presidential nominee isn’t going to run a typical campaign against an incumbent president, one that rests solely on calling him a failure, opposing his policies and disparaging his character. The nominee, and much of the Democratic Party, are instead likely to make a more pointed case a major part of the campaign message: The president is corrupt and unfit to serve, and that’s why voters ought to boot him from office.

If Democrats, with votes to spare in the House, fail to impeach Trump, won’t it undercut that case?

Picture a presidential debate in which the Democratic nominee is taking those hard shots against Trump. If Democrats don’t impeach him, Trump will be able to respond: If your party really believed I was so bad, they would have impeached me. They didn’t because you’re all just playing political games.

That’s what Trump will be able to say, and he will not be wrong.

— Ramesh Ponnuru is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He is a senior editor at National Review, visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and contributor to CBS News.