House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) was well aware she was going to create a sensation when she made a pronouncement to my colleague Joe Heim during an interview last week.
He had asked about the topic that is on everyone’s mind as Washington awaits the soon-expected results of special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election.
“I’m not for impeachment. This is news. I’m going to give you some news right now because I haven’t said this to any press person before,” Pelosi 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.”
It was indeed newsworthy when The Washington Post Magazine published those comments Monday. But it was not a surprise to hear Pelosi raise this sensible cautionary note — at least, not to anyone who has paid attention to her style of leadership.
The right has spent untold millions on negative ads that paint the San Francisco Democrat as the face of radical liberalism. The truth, however, is that her guiding instinct has always been pragmatism.
None of which is to say that Pelosi does not intend to use her Democratic House majority to hold Trump accountable. But she refers to this as oversight, not investigation, and is determined that the responsibility given to Congress in the Constitution be carried out in an orderly, deliberative manner.
The questionable actions of this president and his administration are so numerous that no fewer than six House committees have claims to jurisdiction over various aspects of them. Pelosi’s aides meet regularly with all of them to make sure they are staying in their lanes.
Hers is a steady, seasoned hand. Pelosi got her formative experience as a legislator on the Appropriations and Intelligence committees, two panels that were known until recent years for their bipartisanship. Her greatest leadership talents have been her ability to find the center of gravity and to maintain her focus when political passions are running high.
In the 2006 election, Democrats won back the House on their promise to bring U.S. troops home from Iraq. It fell to their incoming speaker to disappoint the liberal base with the news that there would not be an abrupt cutoff of funding. “As long as our troops are in harm’s way,” she declared, “Democrats will be there to support them.”
Pelosi accomplished an astonishing amount in the four years that Democrats held the House, including the high-wire legislating it took to deliver the Affordable Care Act to President Barack Obama’s desk in 2010. But this achievement, done with no Republican votes, came at a high cost; her party was turned out of power later that year.
Now she is back, the first speaker in more than 60 years to be given another chance at the job after losing it. Pelosi owes her new majority not to the bright-blue districts that last year elected media darling Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), who has replaced Pelosi as the right’s favorite foil, and Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.), who on the day she was sworn in declared, “We’re gonna go in there and we’re going to impeach the motherf-----.”
Democrats control the House today because they were able to win last year in places such as Orange County, Calif., and suburban districts in Virginia and Pennsylvania. Pelosi knows that a partisan rush to impeachment raises the risk of alienating voters in those moderate parts of the country.
Pelosi also recognizes that impeachment is a political process, not a legal one. The framers of the Constitution put it in the hands of elected officials, declined to define what constitutes the “high crimes and misdemeanors” that would be grounds for a president’s removal and set a high bar for conviction: a two-thirds majority vote in the Senate.
Implicit in all of that was that the drastic step of throwing a president out of office would not be undertaken unless a broad consensus of the electorate was firmly behind it. As House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam B. Schiff (D-Calif.) explained: “The only thing worse than putting the country through the trauma of an impeachment is putting the country through the trauma of a failed impeachment.’’
And once it is set in motion, impeachment is difficult to dial back. One of the things that makes an ill-considered gambit to remove Trump “just not worth it,” in Pelosi’s words, is the opportunity cost. It would no doubt consume all of the legislative oxygen, making it hard for just about anything else to get done.
As the speaker often points out, Democrats won last year on promises to make progress in three areas: protecting and improving the health-care system, rebuilding the nation’s infrastructure and cleaning up government. Come November 2020, they will be judged on whether they delivered.
“I hardly ever talk about him,” she said of Trump in the interview. “You know, it’s not about him. It’s about what we can do for the people.” That was an important reminder, and no doubt one she will have to make again and again.