With just a few words, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has reset the political dynamic for the next two years, ending Democratic hopes for a congressional end to the Trump years and putting that decision back where it belongs: with the voters.
I am of course talking about Pelosi’s comments to The Washington Post Magazine about impeaching Trump.
“I’m not for impeachment,” she said. “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.”
As moves go, this was an earthquake. It has already touched off seismic waves of discontent and disagreement, and will no doubt occasion more aftershocks. But I see it as a bold and cagey political decision. Here’s why:
In the second half of his term, Trump, an unpopular president, has signaled that he will try to stave off a loss in several ways. First, he’s going to foment fears about the border; so far, however, most Americans are taking that pretend-emergency in stride.
Second, he’s going to warn that turning the country over to the Democrats means a full-scale embrace of socialism (and socialism in its disastrous Venezuelan variety, not the more benign Scandinavian model). But unless Bernie Sanders emerges as the Democratic nominee, that hoary political pooch seems unlikely to get off the couch and warm to the hunt.
A third argument is a continuation of the one Trump made in the run-up to the midterm elections: Democrats have been intent from the get-go on impeaching him — and that doing so is a partisan plot to overturn the results of Election Day 2016. That’s an obvious attempt to change the focus, by portraying the voters’ 2016 decision (as translated through the Electoral College, anyway), and not the Trump team’s misdeeds, as the Democrats’ real target. But absent clear evidence of a criminal conspiracy that Trump knew about as candidate or president, it could have some resonance. No more, however. By taking impeachment off the table barring a bombshell revelation, Pelosi has blunted that charge.
Here you can argue that the speaker went too far by adding to her “unless” list the notion of a bipartisan consensus for removing the president. By doing so, she has given the GOP a veto over any possible impeachment effort — and unlike the Nixon era, when the collective GOP conscience was still capable of objecting to acts of presidential misconduct, today’s Republican congressmen have proved almost reflexive defenders of a rogue president.
But Pelosi critics need to recognize two practical political realities. The impeachment process itself would likely take up much of the rest of this year, which means that even if successful, it wouldn’t shorten Trump’s tenure by much. Further, absent an act of such enormity that it shocks even today’s dulled Republican civic sensibilities, there’s no way to muster a two-thirds verdict to remove the president in a Senate that the Republicans control.
So now voters themselves will have the full weight of deciding whether Trump is fit to be president. They can’t cut his existing term short, of course. But they certainly can make sure that he doesn’t win a second one.
That, to be sure, is not a foregone conclusion. To anyone paying even cursory attention, Trump’s enormous character flaws were obvious in 2016. The ridiculousness of his public policy pronouncement should have been equally apparent. The fact that he won an Electoral College victory despite all that remains dismaying.
But it’s now up to voters — and voters alone — to rise to the occasion. And that, in the final analysis, is the way a democracy has to renew itself.Scot Lehigh can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeScotLehigh.