Nancy Pelosi made herself more than clear. For over a year, the Democratic leader of the House of Representatives wanted nothing to do with the growing interest in impeaching President Donald Trump. “It’s not someplace that I think we should go,” she said on CNN last November. At a press briefing in April, she said, “I don’t think we should be talking about impeachment. I’ve been very clear right from the start…. On the political side I think it’s a gift to the Republicans.” The following month, she called impeachment “divisive” and a “distraction.” And in August she said, ‘‘It’s not a priority on the agenda going forward unless something else comes forward.”
But Pelosi recently sounded a slightly different note. “Recognize one point,” she told The Atlantic’s Edward-Isaac Dovere on Friday. “What Mueller might not think is indictable could be impeachable.” Meanwhile, Axios reported on Monday that “Top Democrats, who had largely avoided the subject during the campaign, now tell us they plan to almost immediately begin exploring possible grounds for impeachment.”
There have been no major revelations of late that could explain this shift; the evidence of Trump’s malfeasance was no less convincing a month or two ago than it is today. But something else has changed: The Democrats handily won back the House of Representatives in last week’s midterms, setting up Pelosi’s return as the chamber’s speaker. Could it be that she and other leading Democrats have been seriously considering impeachment all along?
If so, one can hardly blame them, given the pressure they were under from the base and megadonors alike—which has not abated. “As President Trump continues to accelerate his lawlessness, the new Democratic House majority must initiate impeachment proceedings against him as soon as it takes office in January,” Tom Steyer wrote in The New York Times last week. Six in ten Democrats agree with him, according to a Politico/Morning Consult poll released on Monday.
But this would be a mistake, or at least premature. After last week’s blue wave, it’s clear that most everything is trending in Democrats’ favor. The party won handily on a message focused on health care. The Rust Belt states that Trump flipped in 2016 appear to be turning blue again, while demographic shifts elsewhere in America are turning some red states closer to purple. In Washington, meanwhile, Democrats will have two years to investigate every nook and cranny of the Trump administration. So why would they push their luck by impeaching the president, risking a backlash that could propel Trump to reelection?
Throughout the midterm campaign, while most Democrats ran away from impeachment, Republicans saw political utility in talking about it. “We recognize that if we lose the House, there are Democrats who have talked impeachment even though it’s a bogus, baseless theory with no grounding in truth,” Republican National Committee spokeswoman Kayleigh McEnany said in July. “We do think that losing the House puts that at risk, and puts that in play.” Trump, in particular, was keen to play up the threat.
Impeachment was a way for Trump, despite not being on the ballot, to make the election all about him—for narcissism’s sake, but also voter turnout. It may have worked, to a point: Republican turnout was particularly high in rural areas, helping the party to strengthen its grip on the Senate.
And yet, Democrats won with a higher vote margin than Republicans did in either of their last two wave elections, in 1994 and 2010. They could end up winning 40 seats in the House, the most since Watergate. (Several races remain too close to call.) How did they get here? Not by talking about removing Trump from office, but by delivering “a message about health care with the repetitive force of a jackhammer,” as The New York Times put it. At a victory party on Tuesday evening, Pelosi pumped her fist in the air and exclaimed, “Let’s hear it for pre-existing conditions!”
Data led the way. While polling showed that impeachment was (and still is) unpopular with more than half of the country, the Times reported that research on right-of-center suburban voters and blue-collar whites who supported Trump found “that only a message about health care and jobs could win over both groups”:
In a presentation compiled for the PAC in the summer of 2017 by the Democratic polling firm Normington Petts, party strategists delivered an unambiguous assessment: “The strongest policies for a Democratic candidate are almost entirely economically focused.” And it warned that Mr. Trump was not the “most important villain” — congressional Republicans were.
Pelosi and House Democrats appear to be sticking to this plan, for now. They’re readying a massive slate of proposals that will focus on expanding voting rights, strengthening ethics laws, and limiting corporate money in politics. It is highly unlikely that any of these measures will pass a Republican Senate and be signed into law by Trump, but they are important nonetheless as a signal to American voters—and especially the base—about the party’s priorities.
Pelosi herself summed up the Democrats’ 2019 policy agenda the day after the election. “Democrats pledge, again, a new majority, our ‘For the People’ agenda, lower health care costs, lower prescription drugs, bigger paychecks, building infrastructure, clean up corruption to make America work for the American people’s interest, not the special interests,” she said. “Yesterday’s election was not only a vote to protect America’s health care. It was a vote to restore the health of our democracy.”
At the same time, House Democrats will use their oversight power next year to draw attention to Trump’s myriad scandals. One Democrat told Axios on Monday that House members were preparing to fire a “subpoena cannon” at the president. Representative Nita Lowey told Axios that the list of targets, which numbers more than 85, includes “the Space Force, hurricane relief in Puerto Rico, White House security clearances, White House use of personal email and more.” Adam Schiff, the incoming chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, has his eyes on an even bigger target: “We’re going to want to look at what leverage the Russians may have over the president of the United States.”
It’s possible that these investigations will find offenses that warrant impeachment, or that, as Pelosi indicated to The Atlantic, the Mueller investigation will uncover Russia-related information so explosive that Democrats will grow more comfortable with the “i-word.” But right now, while there may be a persuasive constitutional argument for impeaching Trump, there’s not a strong political case for doing so.
Things are looking up for the Democrats, who are poised to grow their House majority in 2020. From infrastructure to health care (including Medicare for All), the party’s policy agenda is broadly popular. They may not regain the Senate until 2022, due to yet another unfavorable map in 2020, but impeachment talk would only make that harder, as polling suggests it would turn off the rural voters they need to win back seats in states like Ohio. In the meantime, the odds are only growing that the economic recovery will sputter, feeding the growing backlash against Trump and Republicans. And the GOP under Trump seems intent on appealing only to white men, a demographic that shrinks by the year.
The House can impeach Trump all it wants, but as things stand today, the Senate certainly would not find the president guilty. And recent American history warns of the consequences of pursuing a hopeless impeachment. “If they want to impeach President Trump, I’d give them some advice,” Republican Senator Lindsey Graham told Fox News’ Bret Baier. “Been there, done that with Clinton, didn’t work out for us. I would think twice about it. It will blow up in their face.”
It is not often that one asks Democrats to heed the words of Lindsey Graham. But he’s right.