My guess is House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has seen this freight train coming at her for a long time — probably about the time President Donald Trump fired FBI Director James Comey, precipitating the appointment of Robert Mueller as special counsel.
The chugging engine is impeachment, and the shrewd speaker is tied to the tracks destined for an inevitable fate she wants to avoid: impeachment hearings.
From 2017 through the 2018 elections, Democrats howled with moral outrage about the lack of oversight — and at times outright accommodation — by the Republican House majority when it came to Trump, Russian interference in the 2016 election and the possible obstruction of the special counsel’s investigation.
Now it’s 2019. Pelosi is speaker, the gavels of the key House committees are controlled by chairs loyal to her, and Mueller’s report is complete. And the upshot of that report is crystal clear. Trump committed impeachable offenses. The subtext of Mueller’s public comments last week were just as clear: “Hey Congress, read my report and, per the Constitution, the ball is in your court.”
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Now Pelosi is leading a party that can do the right thing after years of mocking spineless GOP Trump appeasers. And just as those GOP appeasers have maintained that anything less than being Trump toadies was bad politics for Republicans, Pelosi is insisting that impeachment is bad politics for Democrats. Behind closed doors, she calls impeachment a “fool’s errand,” Axios reported, citing an unnamed close Pelosi ally.
This conventional wisdom is now Beltway dogma, with pundits repeating it daily, churning it into a cyclone of spin. It grows from the belief that President Bill Clinton's impeachment debate was bad for the prosecuting party (Republicans) in the 1998 election so it would be bad for the Democrats in 2020. Additionally, Trump appears to want the impeachment fight because he only knows how to succeed if he’s in a fight.
If Pelosi is courageous, so is McConnell
Then there’s the more cynical reality. What’s the point of impeaching Trump if the Republican-heavy Senate will surely acquit him? Or, even more cynically, what if Trump is removed from office and the Democrats lose their primary fundraising and voter turnout foil for 2020? Let’s face it, Trump has been worth tens of millions of dollars to the Democrats.
So here’s Pelosi: fighting the gravitational pull of evidence, duty, moral obligation and honesty while knowing that as a political leader, she must continue to resist that pull — and instead take the awful path that is most politically expedient for the good of her party and its agenda. That’s right. She’s becoming Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. And she must hate it.
We’re at the moment in the Trump saga where the cable talking heads, columnists, Democrats and late-night comedians who have savaged McConnell and other Republicans for refusing to torch Trump for his obvious flaws and malfeasance either need to similarly torch Pelosi or start apologizing to McConnell & Co. If Pelosi is showing courage for doing the right thing politically for her party, then McConnell is also courageous. If McConnell is reprehensible for not moving against an impeachable president, then Pelosi is also reprehensible. You can’t have it both ways and have any intellectual or moral integrity.
It's hypocrisy to praise Pelosi, torch McConnell
Back to Pelosi tied to those tracks with the impeachment engine bearing down on her. She’s going to have to soon acknowledge the engine isn’t slowing down, and she’ll have to get off the tracks because there’s no stopping it. An impeachment inquiry will have to eventually commence. House Democrats may call it something else (the Watergate hearings did not begin as “impeachment hearings;” those came a year later), but there is an obvious burden upon them to put witnesses under oath in public hearings. And surely that will result in captivating moments through the fall.
Pelosi and her leadership are probably now plotting a timeline that slowly plays out the process so that popular opinion to just let the election happen will grow into a mandate against passing articles of impeachment. With some good fortune, Democratic front-runners will still be polling ahead of Trump in the fall and can unite in a call to let the voters replace Trump.
The other fact of her fate that must irritate House speaker is that even if she gets high marks from the news media for outwitting the president in skirmishes, like the recent “Infrastructure Week” White House meeting that Trump stalked out of, the larger arc of politics is being bent by Trump. Like all things in the Trump era, the conventional political laws of gravity are suspended. His wanton misbehavior ironically puts her on constant defense. He is truly the ultimate disrupter.
Don’t expect the general hypocrisy of loathing McConnell the appeaser and extolling Pelosi the tactician to subside in the months ahead, but it is indeed a hypocrisy.
Rob Stutzman, founder and president of Stutzman Public Affairs in Sacramento, was chief of staff for communications to former California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. Follow him on Twitter: @robstutzman
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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Pelosi chooses politics over principle on Trump impeachment. Just like Mitch McConnell.