What Was It For?

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi holds her weekly news conference on Capitol Hill, December 19, 2019. (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)

Impeachment may be another moral victory for the Democrats, but it’s a political fight they will lose at great cost to their party and the country.

Impeachment is not a judicial process, as my colleague Andrew C. McCarthy likes to remind us, but a political process with judicial trappings. That makes it very likely — practically certain — that Democrats will lose in the Senate, where Republicans have a majority led by Mitch McConnell, who practically has the adjective “wily” bolted onto his name right in front of “senator.”

It is easy to underestimate speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, because she speaks an obscure dialect of High Gibberish and frequently seems to be confused in public — not that any of that is stopping Joe Biden from leading the Democratic primary field. Pelosi is clever enough, but lacks the courage that in politics comes from genuine conviction, which she also lacks, and that makes her easy to bully. The zany-left caucus in the House — the left-of-San Francisco caucus — pushed Pelosi to ignore her own better judgment in order to give the Democrats one of those “moral victories” they keep proclaiming as Republicans claim electoral ones.

Which is to say, impeachment will be this year’s Beto O’Rourke vs. Ted Cruz.

President McConnell seems to be enjoying this. (Yes, yes, I know that Trump is technically president, but Cocaine Mitch is running the show: Ask Merrick Garland.) McConnell knows that Pelosi has dealt herself a losing hand, and watching her and her House colleagues flounder must be amusing to the gimlet-eyed gentleman from Kentucky.

Pelosi knew that opening an impeachment action against President Donald Trump was a dumb idea, because simply talking about impeachment would offer about 90 percent of the political benefit with none of the risk, whereas actually impeaching the president offered only a near guarantee of final failure. The point of this impeachment is not to remove Trump from office — everybody knows that is not very likely to happen — but to denounce him. Democrats victimized by wishful thinking may have believed that the testimony in the House and the howling 1,000-coyote chorus in the media would turn some Trump voters against him, but, if anything, both will have the opposite effect, giving the president the two things his style of politics most needs: a narrative of unfair victimization and an opportunity to proclaim victory. Trump is not a statesman but a culture-war WMD, and his admirers are not much interested in any kind of disarmament, and in unilateral disarmament least of all.

Pelosi apparently hoped to draw things out by refusing to send the articles of impeachment to the Senate for consideration, thereby keeping the part of the process she thinks is politically valuable — the Ad Catilinam denunciations and the media coverage of them — while avoiding the resounding defeat in which this gambit is all but guaranteed to end.

But Pelosi did not account for the fact that McConnell is better at this than she is. Parliamentary shenanigans are kind of his thing. (Again: Ask Merrick Garland.) When Senate Republicans began maneuvering to dismiss the articles without Pelosi’s sending them over, Pelosi flinched and announced that she’d submit the articles in the week to come.

So, what was it for?

Trump’s wrongdoing is real and significant, but Pelosi et al. never had the moral credibility to make a persuasive impeachment case against him or the political juice to get it done. Democrats were talking about impeachment before the man was ever sworn in as president, and they remain emotionally dependent upon their preposterous tale about Russians on Facebook throwing the election to Trump. (The Russians, for their part, wanted paralyzing chaos and to destabilize the United States politically — Mission Accomplished, Ivan.) The Democrats would have been far better off simply telling the truth about Trump’s failings and challenging him at the polls rather than presenting this as an apocalyptic drama that cannot wait for an election and resolution on ordinary democratic terms. Apocalyptic dramas are pretty hard to sell when unemployment is low, and it is possible to exaggerate the sins of even Donald Trump.

Instead, all Democrats have accomplished is to harden preexisting partisan divisions and to normalize (or further normalize, if you like; Newt Gingrich and the GOP Class of ’94 bear some responsibility here, too) the use of presidential impeachments as an ordinary part of the political arsenal. Donald Trump is not going to be any better — or any worse — than he would have been without the impeachment fight. Trump was made for this kind of mud-wrestling — everybody gets dirty but, like the proverbial pig, he enjoys it.

Pelosi may have given the Democrats another moral victory, but McConnell is going to give Republicans an unqualified victory. And what is the cost of this impeachment misadventure? An even more dysfunctional government, an even more insipid politics, and an even more bitter and fearful electorate.

For all the genuine misdeeds of Donald J. Trump, that one is on Democrats.

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