Pelosi’s act is best understood as an attempt to do what she excels at: managing intraparty tensions. Withholding the articles over the Christmas holiday season gave her three distinct wins in that never-ending battle.
Her biggest win will be among progressive activists and donors. They wanted Trump impeached since his inauguration, yet when Pelosi took the speaker’s gavel last January, she pointedly did not authorize an immediate impeachment proceeding. Instead, she waited until a new revelation gave her public grounds — some might say a pretext — to initiate them. This was smart politics but clearly came at some cost to her as she held back the progressive tide.
Withholding the articles allowed her to show progressives that she would fight, not just acquiesce, to remove Trump from office. She’s a good enough politician to know that she had to send them over sometime in January because she had no leverage to force McConnell to deal. But her simple act of defiance signaled to an important party audience that she was on their side. This should help her raise money and motivate activists as she defends her precarious majority in the fall.
She also wins by pinning the blame for Trump’s eventual acquittal on McConnell. Democratic failure to persuade Trump backers to even consider impeaching the president has always meant the Senate trial’s outcome is a foregone conclusion. By holding the articles and forcing McConnell to do what he was going to do — run the trial his way — Pelosi gives Democrats a scapegoat for their eventual failure to remove Trump. They can blame McConnell’s allegedly unfair and prejudicial rules for the debacle rather than their own failure to bring even a small portion of the non-Democratic electorate behind them. Since Democrats already view McConnell as a mendacious partisan, this is an easy sell.
Pelosi also wins by pushing the Senate trial’s timetable back. Had she sent the articles immediately after passage, the Senate could have started the trial after returning from the holiday break. Now, however, they won’t be able to start the trial until after the Martin Luther King Jr. Day weekend. This means the Senate will be in trial six days a week for the period before the Iowa caucuses and may well be in session through the New Hampshire primary, too. That will likely hurt the progressives’ favorites, Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), as they will have to stay in Washington rather than campaign in those crucial early voting states.
This in turn makes it slightly more likely that the two leading moderate contenders, former vice president Joe Biden and former South Bend, Ind., mayor Pete Buttigieg, will prevail. Pelosi surely knows that polls show Biden is the candidate best placed to beat Trump and reassure moderate independents. Buttigieg’s intelligence and calm demeanor also would be likely to reassure that crucial set of swing voters. Either would be a better candidate at the top of the ticket for the 30 Democrats who represent districts Trump won in 2016 than the vocal, unyielding progressivism of Sanders or Warren. Pelosi’s move means those men will likely be the only major candidates actively campaigning in the final days before the first primary season votes.
Pelosi was always going to be playing a weak hand once the articles left the House. She’s played a poor hand exceedingly well, using the articles to give a boost to her chances of returning as speaker next year. That’s an excellent use of a holiday vacation period.