Why Nancy Pelosi Continues to Deflect the Censure Gambit


House Speaker Nancy Pelosi holds her weekly news conference on Capitol Hill, June 20, 2019. (Al Drago/Reuters)

The House speaker is playing the long game.

One-quarter of House Democrats publicly support impeaching President Trump. It is an oft-reported talking point in media-Democrat circles. Not much mentioned is the corollary: That means three-quarters would rather see the question go away.

This is the challenge that Speaker Nancy Pelosi continues to navigate — deftly.

When last we visited this issue, the speaker was deflecting impeachment chatter by insisting that she would prefer to see the president prosecuted and sent to prison.

Now the latest: Pelosi is deflecting censure chatter by insisting that she’d rather see the president impeached.

It is a delicate dance.

As we have noted, only about one-third of the country, mostly Democrats, is interested in pursuing impeachment. The number that sticks with me is 37. That is the rough percentage of people who show up in poll after poll as strongly disapproving of the president and his policies.

I am no psephologist, but that seems like a very high number to me. At any given time, even when things are going well, the total number of people who disapprove is apt to be a good deal higher than those who strongly disapprove. So, if the latter is at 37, the likelihood is that the president will be underwater most, if not all, of the time. (As this is written, the RCP average has him down about 9 percent — 44 approve versus 53 disapprove.)

Now, as a conservative Republican, I think both more and less of this than ardent Trump supporters do. More, because I take the polls seriously — I don’t think an adult reaction to ominous polls is to dismiss the polls (and the pollsters!) as “fake news.” Less, because I never thought Trump won in 2016 because of Trump.

I thought the president won because his opponent was awful. I don’t see that much has changed. The economy is good but there are signs it is slowing. The tariffs are likely to bite him in key states (as our Kevin D. Williamson brilliantly explains, here). The president seems content to play to his base and temperamentally turns off many people who would support a less volatile, less self-absorbed personality. I don’t see how he could win the popular vote given his unpopularity in huge Democratic strongholds (California and New York), so if he is going to win an Electoral College majority, it is going to be very tight.

Once again, then, everything will hinge on Trump’s opponent — will he or she have such deep flaws (in addition to the baggage of unpopular Democratic policies), that Trump becomes more palatable by comparison than he seems to be in a vacuum? We won’t know that for a while, and I won’t get too excited over polls until we do.

Speaker Pelosi reads the same polls, and she is certainly better at this than I am. She has to figure the Democrats have a very good chance of defeating the president. I am betting she spends most waking hours asking: How could we screw this up? And the answer probably is: By taking rash, futile action aimed at prematurely ejecting a guy we can beat the old-fashioned way 17 months from now.

For Pelosi, the chance of beating the president and the value of beating him are both diminished if she cannot protect the Democrats who won seats in districts where Trump is popular. If Democrats anger voters in those districts, they may turn out in the droves Trump needs to win; or, if not, they could still flip the House back to the GOP. With Republicans likely to hold the Senate, this would guarantee a rough go for a new Democratic administration.

On the other hand, the hard-left base that wants Trump impeached represents most of the energy and much of the money in a presidential-election cycle. Pelosi has to hold them off while demonstrating that she is still one of them at heart.

The solution: in House committees, keep the anti-Trump investigations churning but on a tight leash. These proceedings need to look, feel, and be covered like an impeachment inquiry, but not actually be one. Keep calling witnesses, keep railing about lawlessness and obstruction, but don’t do anything that calls for Congress to take formal action. That is a big Pelosi objective: spare the Democrats in Trump districts from having to take tough votes.

An example: A couple of weeks ago, the House voted (along party lines) to make it easier for chairmen of key investigative committees to go to court to try to enforce subpoenas issued to the Trump administration. They tried to gussy it up as if it were a contempt vote against Attorney General Bill Barr. In reality, it was nothing of the sort.

It was shrewd, though. Ordinarily, an effort to enforce a subpoena or hold an administration official in contempt would call for a vote of the full House. But now, the chairmen will just need a nod from a five-person leadership committee (three Democrats, two Republicans) controlled by Pelosi.

Why? The Speaker is trying to protect her vulnerable members. Constituents in Trump-friendly districts see such votes as unduly hostile to the president. They are increasingly irritated by the Democrats’ mulish persistence in an anti-Trump impeachment gambit at the expense of dealing with pressing national problems. Why force members who will have to face these voters to go on record — knowing the base will fry them if they resist the Resistance?

Ditto censure. Some members of Congress are attracted to the notion of formal legislative censure of the president, in lieu of impeachment. We learned this in the Clinton impeachment. Censure is classic Washington: It would enable lawmakers to register disapproval of presidential misconduct yet avoid an accountable vote on whether the president should be removed.

Pelosi is shrewd enough to see salient differences between the Clinton and Trump scenarios. There was no doubt that Clinton violated the law and engaged in condemnable personal misconduct; nor was there doubt that most Americans (including many who did not like Clinton) did not want him removed from office. Therefore, the idea of censure was popular among Democrats (and some Republicans) who were pro-Clinton and saw it as an escape hatch from the Constitution’s impeachment remedy for presidential misconduct.

In the Trump situation, to the contrary, there is significant dispute about whether the president violated the law. Even people who deeply disapprove of the behavior outlined in Special Counsel Mueller’s report have serious qualms about whether it rises to the level of obstruction. (Many of those people have become inured to Trump’s character traits; they’ve learned to sigh and go on with their day, rather than wonder why the grand jury has not yet filed an indictment.)

A censure vote on Clinton would have been popular (probably even with Clinton himself), and might have been seen as sparing the country a futile impeachment trial. But a censure vote on Trump would be unpopular: It would not satisfy anti-Trumpers for whom there is no alternative to impeachment; and it would anger the president and his supporters, who see the collusion caper as a farce and want the matter dropped.

Pelosi is not actually against censure, then. She just sees it as a lose–lose proposition: a proposal that her irate base would see as betrayal, and that would force vulnerable Trump-district Democrats to take a vote that might cost them their seats, and thus cost the Democrats their majority.

So, to avoid censure, Speaker Pelosi will become the champion of impeachment. And to avoid impeachment, she will remain the champion of prosecution . . . at least as long as she knows there will be no prosecution. In the here and now, it is illusion, not action. But she is playing a long game.

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