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Beyond Pelosi

Why impeachment can’t penetrate the cult of D.C. savvy.

Every time I see Nancy Pelosi patiently spell out the higher political wisdom of refraining from impeachment proceedings against Donald Trump, I think of Alan Greenspan. That’s obviously not because the speaker of the House and the famously tight-lipped former Fed chair have any affinities of political outlook or personal temperament. Rather, it’s because as a former financial journalist, I’m reminded of how Greenspan’s observers in the financial industry tended to project all manner of genius onto him simply because he refused to articulate, in any concrete way that involved anything so crass as a narrative, what he was thinking or doing. For market watchers and finance industry savants, Greenspan was a human koan upon which they were expected to puzzle out their own economic enlightenment. If you didn’t get it, you were the idiot. 

And now I get the sense that Pelosi’s refusal to articulate her strategy with regard to Trump is being met with the same familiar projection of assumed good faith and competence. Most important, her imputed leadership savvy, like Greenspan’s long pre-crash tour atop the Fed, is routinely taken for granted as the most accurate and astute analysis of The Current Situation that will either one day produce, or is already leading to, a well-thought-out, nimble, and unassailable tactical response. 

When people do inexplicable things, it’s always tempting to project qualities onto them that would offer a more innocuous explanation of their behavior than bad judgment, fecklessness, or stupidity. And this particular bias has infected contemporary political analysis with a virulence that rivals Ebola. Even when the subject’s motives are as transparent as Donald Trump’s, there will always be a class of pundit who insists that Trump is playing 3-D chess, when, as one anonymous staffer put it, “more often than not he’s just eating the pieces.” 

This reflexive tendency to dress up a posture of inattention as inscrutable cunning applies even more so to people who are smart and capable, or at least have a record of behaving as if they are. What I now think of as The Alan Greenspan Fallacy is pervasive among elites who believe intelligence is synonymous with inevitable progress, realism, and pragmatism. So when Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, an effective and often groundbreaking career politician, refuses to articulate a rationale for failing to hold Trump accountable, she gets the benefit of the doubt, and quite a bit more. When she says something that provokes Trump, or forces him to be defensive, this is read as active management of Trump and not Trump behaving in the reactionary fashion he always does. (This particular brand of savvy being the ability to get “into Trump’s head” as Maureen Dowd put it in her now-notorious interview with Pelosi earlier this month—as though there’s some concrete political victory associated with this cranial burrowing, or, more to the point, as if there’s anything in the big broad world that doesn’t get into Trump’s head.)

Whenever Pelosi claims to have a plan for managing him long term, she’s met with affirmational centrist validation that says she knows what she’s doing—and that any inability to parse her logic must definitionally be a shortcoming on the part of the observer. In short, if Trump is playing 3-D chess, Pelosi must be operating in some more sophisticated double-digit dimension that’s so beyond the ken of regular voters that none of us can possibly comprehend it. Surely there has to be a strategy behind all of this sitting around, claiming to be outraged, and doing nothing.

Pelosi herself has done much to enforce this perception, both with her refusal to communicate her rationale—silence is often mistaken for genius—and by periodically alluding to hypothetical wheels in motion that may or may not exist at all. When forced to comment, she’s fearless, but only in her willingness to insult the intelligence of other Democrats. We’re told that the plan, whatever it is, is working because Trump is “self-impeaching”—a nonsensical claim belied by the daily onslaught of cascading horrors that the administration continues to unleash upon Americans with no consequences whatsoever. (If he is self-impeaching, however that happens, it’s happening so slowly and incrementally that it’s not visible to the naked eye, and it’s doubtful that he’ll have completed the process before the end of a second term.)

It’s not clear whether Pelosi even thinks people actually believe this line of reasoning. She just doesn’t seem to think it’s her job to convince them. Voters handed Democrats a meaningful avenue for holding the executive branch accountable in 2018, but Pelosi seems to have no interest in the hard work of doing that, except inasmuch as it means Democratic Party elites will issue public statements condemning the president’s actions, and effectively fundraise off of those public statements. As far as she’s concerned, her assurance that she’s in some distant fashion righting the wrongs of Trumpism by hoarding her own symbolic political power should be action enough for now.

To be fair, her behavior isn’t unusual in the context of Democratic Party leadership, where the standing expectation is that elites will make decisions for the electorate behind closed doors, that voters are too unsophisticated to understand their political calculus, and that leadership has no political or moral obligation to educate them. Pelosi said as much herself when she claimed that one reason for her hesitancy to begin impeachment proceedings was that the public did not understand how impeachment works. That assessment may in fact be true, but if so, it implies more, not less, civic engagement on the part of party leaders. In her stolid insistence that the whole impeachment process is simply too complicated for the electorate to comprehend, she manages to reinforce the very misperception she criticizes—that impeachment is an up-or-down vote, and not a process designed to build a case against an unfit president accused of misconduct—by suggesting that it’s unlikely that impeachment would, by definition, be successful, because the Senate is unlikely to convict. 

This has not, of course, stopped her from fundraising off of it. Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee donor inboxes are littered with appeals signed by the speaker to, all caps, stop Trump, as if the critical brake mechanisms are being controlled by donors and not by the officials whose elections they support. It’s like watching a person drown while the lifeguard sits in her tower, performatively noting with alarm that someone is sinking into the sea and surely someone—someone!—must save the swimmer. 

None of this is to say that Pelosi is not personally horrified by what’s happening. Perhaps she is. But whatever she’s experiencing is obviously not compelling or severe enough to make her violate her notions of institutional decorum or consider the long-term consequences of looking the other way when the most corrupt, bigoted, and incompetent president in modern history continually escalates his corruptions, bigotries, and incompetence. 

Those long-term consequences should be Pelosi’s primary consideration, but here she exhibits an unfortunate flaw of the entire party: the inability to think past the next election cycle. 

For Pelosi, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and other members of the so-called Squad are viewed as liabilities instead of opportunities.
Alex Wong/Getty Images

Democrats, unlike their Republican counterparts, don’t invest longitudinally. They don’t think about voter contact as a long-term relationship that transcends particular electoral cycles. (Anyone who’s been on the receiving end of three-times-a-day bait-and-switch donor emails can attest to this.) They handicap what’s supposedly winnable—the baseline for which is polling at the beginning of the cycle, collected anecdotes, and a lot of bias about what candidates and campaigns should look like—and often at the expense of building any affirmative capacity to alter the actual terms of political engagement. Such thinking doesn’t exercise the imagination of the Democratic Party elite for the simple reason that it rarely pays off in absolute wins over the course of a single cycle. 

Pelosi is no exception to these myopic trends—indeed, she tends to aggressively reinforce them, as one of her party’s premier fundraisers. Nearly every framing device that Pelosi has presented to justify her inaction pivots on the ostensible political cost of initiating impeachment proceedings during the 2020 election cycle. There’s no reckoning with the foreseeable costs or gains of an impeachment process beyond the election. When she does talk about the longer-term damage Trump is doing to American democracy, she speaks in vagaries: “We believe that no one is above the law,” she says, but until the House demonstrates that by enforcing law, it’s a meaningless abstraction.

It’s hard to believe that this is a function of naïveté—a sincere belief that the norms and laws Trump is constantly and gleefully violating will hold up under his repeated assaults. It’s more likely that after decades in politics, Pelosi is only capable of calculating losses and gains electorally. Systemic erosions go unnoticed in the daily chaos of reacting to Trump, and amid this broader state of inertia, they also do not figure in any macro way as part of Pelosi’s theory of change. That is to say, she has not engaged in the necessary public reflection with her caucus leaders or the public at large in order to explain just what should be done to reverse the horrible legacy of our present political moment, and to prevent anything like it from happening again once Trump is out of office.  

Another side effect of this myopia: the petty internecine attacks Pelosi and her cohort have unleashed on Representatives Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ayanna Pressley, Ilhan Omar, and Rashida Tlaib. When everything is a battle and nothing is a war, stupid low-stakes skirmishes break out at an astonishing rate, because there are no coherent long-term goals beyond immediately husbanding the balance of congressional power and getting past the next cycle without a loss. House leadership of course pays lip service to the idea of party unity, but in practice Democratic leaders view unity as a top-down dictum and not a consensus. It’s hard not to see this mandate from on high as of a piece with the fantasy of “self-impeachment”: Both notions involve a maximum amount of institutional condescension with a minimum complement of hard work. True consensus-building within the Democratic caucus would require engaging the freshmen congresswomen who’ve exhibited a level of energy and determination that has galvanized support from typically younger voters who are disillusioned by traditional party politics—the sort of voters who are crucial in forging a majoritarian Democratic coalition over a longer-term time horizon. 

Instead, Democratic leadership’s approach to message discipline and party unity has more to do with bad managerial theory than coalition-building: People who can’t be contained safely in the lower compartments of a manageable hierarchy are viewed as a threat, even if, in theory, they are pursuing the same objectives that the threatened management caste is. As a result, they get stigmatized. They are viewed as liabilities instead of opportunities—and their conduct thus gets obsessively scrutinized and disciplined by managers ever mindful of the next potential threat to their own authority. 

Of course, some of this is to be expected. To state the obvious: There are politics in politics. There is also some compromise—to use a favorite Pelosi word—that allows for debate and resolution, and it’s not clear that leadership has any interest in facilitating that. So I don’t fault “The Squad” for this conflict. Their goals are ambitious and rightly so, and they are understandably frustrated by leadership’s reticence and determination to continue governing from within the confines of a well-defended bunker. 

Among other things, this reflex of self-insulation comes at the considerable cost of message coherence. That’s why at the bottom of all the recent controversy engulfing Pelosi’s speakership, there’s something of a yawning void of actual leadership—namely, the failure to articulate any rationale for inaction if that is, in fact, the best course. Meanwhile, the lawmakers in The Squad also acutely understand—in a way that is politically savvy—that their primary leverage in negotiating with more senior members of Congress who disagree with them is mobilizing public sentiment, and they are very effective in utilizing media to that end. 

To put it simply: They are doing their jobs. Members of Congress are not charged with only keeping members of the opposite party accountable; they also have a responsibility to ensure sound decision-making in the best interests of the public among the leaders and colleagues within their own caucus. Seniority should have no bearing on whether members fulfill that duty. When they push Pelosi to do something—and to do it now rather than letting the administration continue its rampaging of democracy for an apparently indefinite period of time—they are doing what voters elected them to do. 

Ultimately, Pelosi is right to insist that a case must be made for beginning impeachment proceedings. But it’s her job to make that case, and failure to do so is a failure of omission. And failure to do so in a timely manner that would curtail some of the worst damage potentially produced by the administration is neglect. 

And there is a clear, obvious case for proceeding on the grounds of obstruction, the details of which are artfully outlined in the Mueller report. There’s a moral, but extralegal argument to be made that Trump should be impeached for things well outside the scope of the report that may present themselves in the course of investigating potential obstruction, and that his bigotries, the atrocities he’s created at the border, his constitutional violations, his enabling of Russian interference in 2016, his potential financial crimes, merit that response on their own. That Pelosi refuses to acknowledge this almost feels like gaslighting. Yes, a state bar’s worth of legal experts reached these conclusions a long time ago, but Pelosi still doesn’t see it; isn’t convinced; what are you talking about? 

Pelosi has brushed aside suggestions that failing to impeach Trump could hurt Democrats in 2020.
Mark Wilson/Getty Images

Her explanations for her hesitancy aside from whether the Democrats have a strong procedural case on impeachment don’t hold up, either. If there needs to be majority support for impeachment from Democrats, we have that. Polls indicate that more than two-thirds of Democrats now believe proceedings are warranted. There is more support for impeaching Trump right now than there was for impeaching Nixon or Clinton when proceedings began. And even though there’s no need for majority support from all Americans for impeachment to happen—though such a preexisting state of majority consensus may be the only scenario where “self-impeachment” makes a bit of sense—general, public sentiment is moving in that direction. As of early July, impeachment polled in the low 40s, which is near Trump’s own baseline approval rating. It says everything about our political discourse that Trump and his advisers are often held to be tactically ingenious in pandering to a base of support that’s roughly equivalent to the proportion of Americans supporting an essential constitutional oversight function that could also alter the existing electoral landscape in the Democrats’ own favor. 

At the same time, though, Pelosi refuses to acknowledge that the process itself has value as a check on executive branch excesses, regardless of whether the outcome is Trump’s removal via impeachment. In fact, given that Democrats only control the House majority, impeachment is the most effective avenue for them to make a sustained and detailed public case against Trump. That’s especially the case when you factor in the obvious in Trump’s own rise to power: Most public perception in our political environment is determined by media consumption, and particularly, what voters see on television. Even in our multiplatform and digitized media world, regularly broadcasted impeachment hearings would dominate the news cycle like no other domestic political story. 

By implying that impeachment in the Senate is the point, Pelosi denies the importance of the process itself—without which impeachment in the Senate wouldn’t happen in any case. And others have argued better and more persuasively than I could that Senate impeachment isn’t the primary or best reason to do it. Referral to the Senate may be in fact be unnecessary and undesirable. 

So that leaves Pelosi’s favorite impeachment bugbear: prospective losses for Democrats in the 2020 election cycle. Here she leans heavily on the public’s—and not a few professional-class pundits’—ignorance of what public sentiment right now means for an election a year and a half out in the absence of hearings. She also is prone, as many Washington insiders tend to be, to inflate and exaggerate the emergence of any negative sentiment directed at the House caucus, and the Democratic establishment writ large, as a surefire source of potential blowback on Election Day. 

To put things mildly, it’s a very big stretch to assume that voters who are generally not inclined to begin impeachment proceedings feel so strongly about the issue that the actual conduct of impeachment proceedings would provoke an actively hostile response. And it’s a still bigger stretch to deduce from that hypothetical scenario that a still larger turned-off segment of the electorate simply won’t show up to the polls if House Democrats proceed. Democrats don’t really have single-issue voting blocs as a matter of course, and it’s exceedingly difficult to imagine that they’re going to organically develop an anti-impeachment one. Republican support of Trump is at a high in at least one poll after his racist comments about the The Squad—but it’s still well below the historical average of Republican presidents in the last few decades. And head-to-head polls indicate that Trump’s beatable by every one of the top six Democratic candidates. This is not a reason to become overconfident, but it is good cause for realistically evaluating the costs of undue caution on the issue. If Trump can be defeated by virtually any Democrat who runs and maybe an actual ham sandwich, why sacrifice the entirety of checks and balances for the potential slight erosion of a fairly significant starting advantage? 

It also strains credulity that after a long stretch of public hearings outlining Trump’s bottomless malfeasance in minute detail that, with the possible exception of his shrinking base, Republican voters would be more motivated to show up and vote for him, and that Democrats would be demoralized. Historical precedent indeed supports the opposite view: A slim minority—just 19 percent—of polled opinion supported Richard Nixon’s impeachment at the outset of the Watergate scandal, and by the end of the House Judiciary Committee’s televised impeachment hearings, a strong majority supported it. And that shift in opinion translated into a massive wave of Democratic gains in the 1974 midterm balloting. 

Pelosi has never produced any evidence that her mind-boggling scenario is likely. If House leadership has polling somewhere indicating that impeachment proceedings would dampen turnout as a direct result of the proceedings themselves, they have not produced it. That is to say, such polls don’t, and really can’t, show how impeachment might suppress turnout or reflect a hypothetical future level of frustration with the process that would harm broader Democratic messaging efforts. It’s arguably at least as great a risk that a brewing loss of confidence in Democratic leadership’s ability to effectively utilize the power it already has might depress turnout and block effective outreach to voters. Yet there are no intra-party polls on that scenario—or if there are, they’re not getting promoted with the same eagerness that party officials have championed an entirely unscientific poll purporting to show how members of The Squad are massively unpopular with working-class white voters. And needless to say, Pelosi effectively pushes aside any suggestion that there could be actual negative campaign fallout from her chosen course of inaction on impeachment.

I suspect that this particular gambit is actually a hedge—one designed to insulate Pelosi and leadership from responsibility for any potential losses in 2020 generally. If leadership does nothing, 2020 losses are more easily pinned on 2020 candidates. But if leadership acts, any postmortems will invariably point to action as an instigating factor, regardless of whether that actually proves to be the case. Sins of commission are always regarded as more egregious than sins of omission—and that seems to be the simplest explanation of why Pelosi is abdicating responsibility now in order to avoid accusations of culpability in the future. 

Compare this incredible passivity with the offensive maneuvers frequently adopted by the Republican Party and its leaders, who have always taken it for granted that the only way to win is to run roughshod over any Democrat who hesitates to use the power they have. Recent political history shows that the Democratic model of continual retreat into watchful, timorous bunker-mode is a losing proposition. Trump will not be the last nihilist who runs for president and wins. There are plenty of nihilists in the GOP right now, but they have the good sense to couch their power grabs in rhetoric that superficially resembles respectable GOP ideology, and most of them avoid criminality, if only because they believe legal accountability is a credible threat. This last point is particularly important to remember if, in your supposedly complex and definitely opaque political calculus, you’re on the fence about whether norms and laws should actually be enforced. 

And it’s not as if Pelosi doesn’t know this. When she tells Maureen Dowd, referring to an immigrant father and daughter who died trying to cross the border, “You would think that within a couple of days, 48 hours or so, of seeing that little child with her father, there would have been some challenge of conscience [for Republicans]. But understand this: They don’t care” it’s certainly not because Pelosi doesn’t understand this herself, or because she’s surprised by the fact that they don’t care. Indeed, she understands it better than most. She just refuses to take responsibility for countering it with an appropriate response, because any such response would be proportional—and by definition, difficult and messy. It’s not a chess game in any dimension; it’s a knife fight, and Pelosi is hesitant to get any dirt, much less blood, on her Manolos. 

The proportional response to now-unchecked GOP lawlessness and normlessness under Trump would mean nothing less than a complete jettisoning of existing Democratic orthodoxy. It would mean weathering hostility from partisans, and abandoning the outdated and false notion that provisional postures of appeasement will magically temper the worst of Republican impulses and lead to some bipartisan reversion to a fantasy consensus that never existed in the first place. Most important in Pelosi’s case, such a thoroughgoing overhaul of received leadership wisdom would mean countenancing serious personal political risk during the later stages of a long and storied career. 

On some level Pelosi may think she just doesn’t have to do this. If you’ve weathered a lot of political chaos, it’s easy to convince yourself that the new horrible thing can’t possibly be worse or different than what you’ve seen before. Here, Pelosi’s experience—the quality that most of her establishment defenders hail as her gold-standard credential—is a handicap if it renders her unable to recognize extraordinary circumstances simply because they don’t fit a historical pattern. To be clear: The historical pattern is that you fundraise off of a bad incumbent and wait for voters to kick them out in the next election. But Trump is more than just a bad incumbent. 

And here’s the real risk, both morally and politically: If Pelosi treats Trump as an aberration and continues to be passive in the hopes that we can all power through until next November, there’s no accountability mechanism built into our system of democracy that has any real credibility. There’s no crime so severe that Trump can’t get away with it—not intentionally neglecting brown children until they die in cages, not being openly racist, not raping women, not helping hostile foreign powers and covering up for dictatorial regimes that torture American journalists to death, not putting American lives at risk in imperialistic and prosecutorial wars. That’s especially true for the offense that should be the most straightforward impeachment charge in this case—obstructing justice when our system of government works by design to prevent the president from abusing his power for personal gain. If nothing Trump does matters during this administration, nothing our system of democracy has in place to prevent descent into autocracy and tyranny matters, either. Norms and laws only work when they’re enforced. 

The long-run cost here is that leadership that does nothing turns us all into nihilists, whether we like it or not. It says that values don’t matter as long as decorum is observed, and that elites are in charge, preferably behind closed doors, where the public can’t second-guess what they’re doing or demand that they do more. In this scheme of things, norms and laws are perfunctory theater, at best. Anyone who’s savvy enough and has enough resources can do exactly what Trump has done, and do it with impunity, and in a more damaging way, because there’s now a roadmap for doing it. And under such conditions, the only way to survive in a system governed entirely by nihilism is to become a nihilist yourself—even for self-styled members of a resistance.  

If that happens, no one will be patting Nancy Pelosi on the back for short-term risk avoidance, and it will be, by far, the most damaging thing to tarnish her long history of accomplishments. We’ll only remember that she could have done something, and she didn’t.