Nancy Pelosi and House Democrats
Credit: House Democrats/Flickr

I don’t often disagree with Greg Sargent, but I think he’s got the wrong take on Nancy Pelosi’s decision to announce that she’s not for impeaching the president. If I can briefly summarize Sargent’s position, he doesn’t think Pelosi is completely out of her tree, but he does think she went unnecessarily far in her remarks. For context, here is what Pelosi said:

“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. But since you asked, and I’ve been thinking about this: 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.”

For a little fuller context, she added this later in the interview:

You said earlier you don’t feel it’s worth it to pursue impeachment. Do you believe he’s fit to be president?

Are we talking ethically? Intellectually? Politically? What are we talking here?

All —

All of the above. No. No. I don’t think he is. I mean, ethically unfit. Intellectually unfit. Curiosity-wise unfit. No, I don’t think he’s fit to be president of the United States.

Sargent is clear that he doesn’t think Pelosi should support impeachment hearings right now, but he argues that her “suggestion that impeachment hearings can proceed only with ‘bipartisan’ support is also unnecessarily self-constraining.” But, for starters, she didn’t specifically mention anything about impeachment “hearings,” which are a preliminary step to an actual vote on impeachment in the House. There’s no logic that says an inquiry must lead to a vote. If we look at what she said very literally, she only precluded having a vote to impeach Trump unless there is some new revelation that is “so compelling and overwhelming” that it creates bipartisan consensus that the president must be removed.

As for inquiries, the House is already working on several of them which are likely to slice Trump up like a ripe watermelon. Pelosi has encouraged these probes, and there’s really no reason to stop what the Ways and Means, Financial Services, and Oversight committees are doing prematurely and put all their work under the jurisdiction of the Judiciary Committee, which would have the responsibility of voting out articles of impeachment.

To really judge Pelosi’s comments, we have to look at what she was trying to accomplish, and I think she succeeded in every area save one.

She wants the Democrats to stay on message with their positive agenda for the American people. This becomes very clear in another part of the interview when she catches herself for spending too much time criticizing the president.

And that’s up to us to make the contrast to show that this president—while he may be appealing to you on your insecurity and therefore your xenophobia, whether it’s globalization or immigrants—is fighting clean air for your children to breathe, clean water for them to drink, food safety, every good thing that we should be doing that people can’t do for themselves. You know, I have five kids, and I think I can do everything for them, but I can’t control the air they breathe, the water that they drink. You depend on the public sector to do certain things for the health and well-being of your family, and he is counter to that.

But again, this is coming across too negatively. I don’t usually talk about him this much. This is the most I’ve probably talked about him. I hardly ever talk about him. You know, it’s not about him. It’s about what we can do for the people to lower health-care costs, bigger paychecks, cleaner government.

If the Democrats are talking about the president, they’re not talking about health care, jobs, and better government. Pelosi’s main concern is not to be off-message. It’s the same strategy the Democrats used in the midterms, and it was very successful. Now that those successful candidates are members of Congress, it’s fitting that their leader is helping them keep the focus on the things they ran–and won–on rather than the things that might obsess Democratic partisans.

I believe this motivation explains about 80 percent of why Pelosi “made news” in this interview on the impeachment issue.

But she also understands that impeaching the president is of limited value and will even be harmful in some ways if he isn’t convicted by the Senate, which is controlled by the Republicans. The more partisan she seems, the more partisan the reaction will be. The more reluctant she sounds to impeach the president, the more it will seem like the facts have overwhelmed her natural aversion to impeachment. For the same reason President Obama eventually concluded that if he wanted something to pass through Congress, he should be as invisible on the issue as possible. Pelosi understands that if she acts like she wants something, that alone will make her less likely to get it.

In any case, while impeachment is a political process and not like any ordinary trial, some things remain the same. We don’t like it when a judge indicates a belief in guilt before any of the prosecution’s evidence has been presented. That makes us doubt the fairness of the proceedings. This is why Sargent would have approved if Pelosi had simply said it was too premature to talk about impeachment rather than going farther and suggesting that some bipartisan consensus would be required. Either way, she’s sending the message that she isn’t prejudging the case, and that’s important not just for Republican audiences. It’s important for anyone who hasn’t already made up their mind.

So, Pelosi accomplished several things with her remarks, all of them completely sensible and defensible. There’s even another benefit that Sargent mentions that could have been a consideration.

Politico’s savvy reporters speculate that Pelosi did this to create a holding pattern for Democrats, temporarily insulating them from unceasing questioning on this topic from activists by allowing them to blame Pelosi’s opposition.

I actually consider that factor as a subset of the staying-on-message strategy, but if she’s willing to take some heat to spare others, that’s part of her job as party leader.

There’s only one real downside to her remarks: she sent a morally weak message. By saying that impeachment should be reserved for things that produce bipartisan outrage, she gave some control to the Republicans and their moral compass. That’s why Maryland Congressman Jamie Raskin criticized her remarks, saying it’s not about whether Trump is “worth it,” but about “whether the republic is worth it.” It’s why Rhode Island Congressman David Cicilline recoiled, arguing in response: “If the facts require us to initiate removing the president, we are obligated to do it.”

It’s close to impossible to take any political action that has 100 percent upside and no downside. In this case, there was no way for Pelosi to hit every mark. But she did very well for herself–and for the party and country. She made it so people understand that she’s not going to impeach Trump come hell or high water, and if Mueller’s report is underwhelming, or her own inquiries fail to produce significant bipartisan outrage, that she’s not going to bull ahead on a process that will lead nowhere. But she also created the conditions for damning facts to be more impactful. If she reverses herself on impeachment later, it will be seen as a meaningful indicator of the seriousness of the charges. She avoided getting the Republicans in a defensive crouch and she didn’t undermine the credibility of future proceedings by appearing to prejudge their outcome. She took the heat on herself in the service of keeping the rest of her caucus on message.

She’s a skilled operator and it’s a pleasure to watch her navigate our nation’s choppy political waters. And I say this as someone who has been making a moral and factual case for impeachment since the month Trump took office.

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Martin Longman is the web editor for the Washington Monthly. See all his writing at