The vulgar remark from Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.) immediately laid bare the rift between a small number of members, and a strong majority of the Democratic base, who want to impeach Trump and a Democratic leadership that clearly views that as premature and politically unwise. It also came at a time when those Democratic leaders — including Pelosi — seem to be shifting ever so slightly from shunning impeachment talk altogether to emphasizing a wait-and-see approach.
Now that Democrats control the House and can impeach Trump, the question is whether the liberals who have pulled their party to the left on single-payer health care, jobs guarantees and free college tuition can do the same with impeaching a president who they’re quite certain has committed “high crimes and misdemeanors.”
The leaders have successfully beat back impeachment fever within their ranks for months, worried over negative effects to their 2018 midterm election prospects. And the leaders continued to attempt that Friday, with Pelosi and newly minted House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerry Nadler (D-N.Y.) rebuking Tlaib.
“I don’t really like that kind of language,” Nadler said on CNN, “but more to the point, I disagree with what she said. It is too early to talk about that intelligently. We have to follow the facts.”
Pelosi added: “Impeachment is a very divisive approach to take, and we shouldn’t take it without the facts.”
But even those comments are a little different than what we’ve seen before — opening the door just a crack more. Pelosi also left the door open to impeachment earlier Thursday, and Nadler’s response allows for impeachment to take place at some point. The Overton window seems to have shifted on impeachment ever so slightly. Perhaps this is reading too much into a few comments, or perhaps it’s a recognition of the new political reality in Washington.
Indeed, it was easier to smother the coals when this was all a hypothetical — when Democrats didn’t have the power to impeach. Starting Thursday, they do. And Tlaib wasn’t the only one to raise this issue. Rep. Brad Sherman (D-Calif.) has already filed articles of impeachment in the House, where a bare majority is required to begin such proceedings. And 11 of 52 newly elected Democrats supported impeachment on the 2018 campaign trail, according to a survey by The Washington Post’s Jacqueline Alemany.
The fact that this is coming from Tlaib, specifically, also makes it more difficult to brush aside. This is one of the most heralded new members of the House — one of its first two Muslim women, both elected in 2018, and someone whose face is everywhere these days. This isn’t just some backbencher who has been tilting at windmills for years. Tlaib used her moment in the spotlight to raise this issue, and it was all over cable news Friday morning. Democratic leaders need to tread lightly. Nadler’s comment suggesting such talk can’t be done “intelligently” right now is dicey when talking about a star, incoming freshman woman of color.
Pelosi also seemed to suggest that Tlaib doesn’t have “facts” on her side. But that’s news to Democratic base voters, who overwhelmingly believe the existing facts are sufficient for impeachment. Exit polls in November showed 77 percent of self-identified Democrats wanted to see Trump impeached. A CNN poll last month showed 80 percent of Democrats wanted Trump not just impeached but also removed from office (the latter which would require a two-thirds vote in the Senate). And a Washington Post-ABC News poll in August showed 63 percent favored impeachment “strongly” — so this isn’t just something that Democratic voters are casual about.
There is an untapped market for what Tlaib is selling, and the pressure to move to the left in the 2020 Democratic primary could theoretically tempt more high-profile Democrats to jump on board. They also may grow bolder now that they are unburdened by a looming election.
To be sure, this is still a push by a very small number of Democrats in the House; while 21 percent of incoming freshmen is significant, it isn’t exactly a chorus. And the fact that Trump is up for reelection next year may temper the perceived need for impeachment (given that Democrats could instead just focus on unseating him).
But while Democratic leaders have done a good job propping up a dam against this kind of talk, sometimes dams break. And there’s plenty waiting to gush out from behind this one.