The Real Democratic Agenda

Column: It's impeaching Donald Trump

Nancy Pelosi
Nancy Pelosi / Getty Images
May 10, 2019

And you thought Democrats won the House out of fear Republicans would drop coverage of preexisting conditions. That they wanted to spend this Congress addressing the cost of prescription drugs, building roads and bridges, resolving the legal status of DACA recipients, expanding gun background checks. Don't be silly! Rashida Tlaib let spill the real Democratic agenda back in January, when she said they were going to "impeach the motherf—er."

Democrats have a problem. The base wants to impeach President Trump, ASAP, but the public does not. Indeed, Trump's approval rating is the highest it’s been in the Gallup survey, right around Obama's at this point in his term. The brute facts of public opinion suggest that the impeachment of Trump would look more like Bill Clinton's trial than Richard Nixon's. Not only would Trump remain in office; the backlash might deprive the Democrats of their 17-seat House majority.

For months, Nancy Pelosi's solution has been to walk right up to the line of impeachment without actually crossing it. Unleash committee chairmen to fire their subpoena cannons in every direction. Make unrealistic demands of Attorney General Barr. Have Swalwell and Lieu and the rest of the cable gang keep alive the conspiracy theory that the Trump campaign was in criminal cahoots with Russia. Drag out the process into next year, when a weakened and bedraggled Trump faces the eventual Democratic nominee. That way Pelosi gets the political benefits of impeachment without the costs.

It's not working. Pelosi's rhetoric has moved in the direction of Rashida's (minus the profanity). She's gone from saying Trump isn't worth impeachment, to saying Trump is goading the Democrats into impeachment, to saying Trump is "self-impeaching," if that's even a thing. She jokes about the jail cell in the basement of Congress, her Judiciary Committee has found Barr in contempt, and she shares Jerry Nadler's hysterical opinion that the United States is in the midst of a constitutional crisis because he can't read the grand jury information of a report you can download for free. On the other side of the building, Chuck Schumer is accusing Mitch McConnell of aiding and abetting a crime that Robert Mueller could not bring himself to say actually happened.

What changed? President Trump's preference for confrontation over consensus is part of the reason, but only a part. Congress and the president fight all the time. The reality is that impeachment talk is the only thing holding the Democrats together. Pelosi's heralded agenda is a flop. Her party is divided on health care, on immigration, on abortion. Whatever legislation she does pass is destined to meet the Grim Reaper in the Senate. The two-dozen 2020 candidates are uninspiring. There's no war to defund. And the economic headlines are dynamite.

Legal warfare against Trump obscures these weaknesses. Doesn't matter if no voter brings up Mueller outside the Beltway. Without teasing impeachment, no one would care about Democrats inside the Beltway. Two of three cable news channels are desperate for Trump scandals, real or imagined. The Democrats might as well give it to them. Or at least pretend to.

In recent weeks the Democrats have turned into a bizarre version of the caricature of Trump they regularly denounce. They lambaste Trump for indulging in conspiracy theories, but the Russia investigation has become their Benghazi, a scandal too complicated and not quite substantive enough to inflame the public imagination. They went after Trump for the "lock her up" chants at his rallies, but flirt with jailing both the attorney general and secretary of the Treasury, passed a New York state law directed at a single individual (forbidden in the Constitution as a bill of attainder), and speculate endlessly about how the president might one day end up behind bars. Pelosi says she worries Trump might not accept a loss in 2020 as Hillary Clinton says the election was stolen from her and the entire Democratic party indulges in the ludicrous fantasy that Stacey Abrams is the legitimate governor of a state she lost by more than 50,000 votes amidst record minority turnout.

This is not a serious party. It has abandoned policy for litigation, and common sense for fantasies of Medicare for All, Green New Deals, abortion after birth, and slavery reparations. The Democrats assume impeachment will be Trump's Watergate. It may well turn out to be their Waterloo.