Mueller's testimony to Congress is dangerous for Democrats and America

Nancy Pelosi is right to hold the line against trying to impeach President Donald Trump.
Image: Speaker of House Nancy Pelosi during a press conference at the Capitol on July 11, 2019.
Speaker of House Nancy Pelosi during a press conference at the Capitol on July 11.Win McNamee / Getty Images file
Get the Think newsletter.
SUBSCRIBE
By Lee Drutman, senior fellow in the Political Reform program at New America

In July 2007, with a growing number of House Democrats calling for impeachment, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said no.

“The question of impeachment is something that would divide the country," Pelosi argued. Instead, she wanted to focus on health care, the environment and other legislative priorities. “I know what our success can be on those issues,” she went on. “I don’t know what our success can be on impeaching the president.”

Without impeachment proceedings, George W. Bush’s popularity continued to fall, and in November 2008, Democrats won back the White House convincingly with Barack Obama preaching a message of unity.

It’s vital that Republicans, not Democrats, do the potentially unpopular overreaching.

A dozen years later, Pelosi is still right. Democrats should let President Donald Trump continue to dramatize his unpopular, boorish extremism rather than try to drag him down through an impeachment process opposed by most of the population.

Democrats face a forbidding electoral geography in a political system that overrepresents conservative rural America. Gerrymandering means that Democrats have to outperform Republicans by 6 percentage points in races across the country to retain control of the House. The 2020 Senate map requires them to win some red states, and they face an Electoral College where Trump could lose the popular vote again and still get re-elected. So it’s vital that Republicans, not Democrats, do the potentially unpopular overreaching.

Get the think newsletter.

The latest station stop on the potential ride to impeachment is Robert Mueller’s testimony before Congress on Wednesday, which will undoubtedly further grease the wheels. Even if the former special counsel just reiterates what’s in his report, he will continue to draw attention to tantalizing between-the-lines insinuations that Trump did something wrong.

This must be maddening to Pelosi, who has a very simple theory of the case: Impeachment proceedings would be a distraction and a political gamble. Trump is already unpopular, and has been since day one of his administration. Democrats have a big legislative agenda of poll-tested and popular policies, and the more they focus on those, the more they can prove they are on the side of the people.

Impeachment, by contrast, still polls underwater. Worse, it’s the one thing that could conceivably make Trump more popular, since it allows him to play the victim of an elite Deep State conspiracy executed by overzealous “libs” — the one role he excels at most. And it’s not as if Republicans in the Senate would ever convict him even if the House did vote for articles of impeachment.

Looking back, Pelosi made the correct decision on Bush. Similarly, given the choice between building a legislative record addressing popular kitchen table concerns and letting Trump prove the establishment is out to get him, the former seems preferable. Besides, it’s not as if a President Mike Pence would be much better from the Democrats’ perspective. He could even be worse.

Certainly, the comparisons between 2007 and 2019 only go so far. For one, the objective case for impeachment against Trump is clearly much stronger than the objective case against Bush. At the same time, Trump appears to have a much more dedicated base of support that will defend him no matter what. And perhaps more significantly, Trump is a fighter who has already done major damage to the legitimacy of America’s democratic institutions — and could do even more damage if backed into a corner.

Pelosi has raised concerns about whether or not Trump would accept the results of the 2020 elections if he lost by a narrow margin, or whether he would “poison the public mind.” After years of complaining about illegal voting and voter fraud, Trump has built up a case for protesting the presidential vote count should he lose. Whether or not he does so may depend on how much support he thinks he has from fellow Republicans.

And here is where impeachment could make things more dangerous. Let’s say Democrats dig in and begin impeachment proceedings. Perhaps some new revelation will emerge, but more likely we will be relitigating the facts and accusations we already know.

In my personal estimation, what we already know amounts to an impeachment-worthy case against the president. But impeachment doesn’t depend on my estimation. It depends on a political process in which two-thirds of the U.S. Senate has to vote to convict, which means that assuming all 45 Democrats and both independents (Bernie Sanders and Angus King) support impeachment, at least 20 Republicans must also vote with them.

Twenty Republicans voting to convict Trump seems highly improbable. Instead, the more likely scenario is that should impeachment move to the Senate, Republicans will become more radicalized in their defense of the president. Think about the confirmation of Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh. Then multiply the existential vitriol by a thousand.

Trump will inevitably turn the fight into a battle over Democrats’ “unconstitutional” power grab. Imagine the 2020 election taking place against the backdrop of an allegedly illegitimate inquisition on the part of Democrats. Imagine when Trump loses narrowly in a few states, has his lawyers file lawsuits alleging voter fraud in all the big cities in those states and extends the power grab rhetoric.

For Democrats, the top priority should be doing everything to increase the likelihood of returning to a more sane politics after the 2020 election.

Senate Republicans who were forced to defend Trump against impeachment would now be far more likely to be all-in with Trump — having said repeatedly that Democrats were out for a power grab.

In a more sensible alternative world, Democrats and Republicans could agree on basic facts, and we’d have a political system where it was easier to remove a corrupt, incompetent and duplicitous president by a simple no-confidence vote. But in our confusing and nonsensical real world, competing political incentives prevent that accord on facts, and impeachment creates a too-high hurdle to shorten a four-year term.

Pelosi lives in this real world of complicated trade-offs and least-bad outcomes. For Democrats, the top priority should be doing everything to increase the likelihood of returning to a more sane politics after the 2020 election. That would be the best outcome of all.