On Saturday, the New York Times published an interesting interview with Democratic Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi titled “Pelosi Warns Democrats: Stay in the Center or Trump May Contest Election Results.” You get the gist from the headline—Pelosi believes that Democrats need to shift their attention from the potential impeachment of Donald Trump to “center left” and “mainstream” policy issues in order to win the 2020 presidential election by a “big” margin. Winning big, she says, will “inoculate” against the possibility that Trump might refuse to “respect the election” and leave the White House in a timely fashion.
There’s a case to be made that Democrats should pursue impeachment despite polling that suggests such a move does not have the majority support of the electorate. Ignoring that subjective issue, though, and assuming that Pelosi is right about impeachment being political suicide, it still doesn’t make any sense strategically for her to have said all of this to the Times. Among the reasons why:
1. It signals to Trump that there will be no consequences for continued obstruction of justice and encouragement of foreign election interference. As last week’s Senate hearing with Attorney General William Barr made clear, even some Republicans are uneasy about what it means, going forward, that Robert Mueller decided not to charge Trump or his advisers for conspiring with the Russian intelligence attack against Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign. Neither Trump nor the various foreign dirty-tricksters he’s friendly with have been given much incentive not to mess with the 2020 Democratic nominee in the same way Russia messed with Clinton. As Kamala Harris’ questions to Barr seemed to show, the same also goes for Trump’s obstruction-y habit of acting as if the attorney general is his personal attorney and the Department of Justice is an arm of his political operation.
If the Democrats’ leader decides that impeaching Trump is not an optimal political strategy at the current moment, that’s one thing. But sending a message via the New York Times that the party will never impeach him is another. Why give him any certainty about where the getting impeached/not getting impeached line is going to be drawn? Why take an issue that’s politically tricky for some Republicans—namely, whether those who represent constituencies in which the president has low approval will vote to formally support his more egregious violations of the law—off the table completely?
2. It is certain that Trump will complain about the 2020 election results no matter how much he wins or loses by. As many people pointed out immediately after the Times piece was published, Trump insists that Democrats committed mass voter fraud in 2016—an election he won—and, despite the Dems’ large margin of victory, in 2018. In both cases, election results were successfully tabulated and certified nonetheless. What do the Democrats have to gain by framing the idea of a coup as something that would be more understandable if it were to occur after a narrow loss? Why not stake out the entirely sensible position, which is incidentally supported by a wide public majority, that the U.S. vote-counting system needs to be respected regardless of what the result is?
3. It signals to swing voters and conservative Democrats that the party’s nominee might be an extremist radical. The article names two policies as examples of what Pelosi considers to be leftist overreach: “Medicare for All” and the Green New Deal. Almost all of the top Democratic presidential candidates are legislative co-sponsors or avowed supporters of Medicare for All or Green New Deal legislation, and some support both. Given the imminent possibility that her party will nominate one of these candidates, one might think a good use of Pelosi’s national newspaper platform would be to pitch both policies as sensible, necessary, and beneficial. Instead, she adopted Fox News’ framing.
4. The only Democratic presidential candidate to have won the Electoral College since 1996 was the more progressive, less moderate, outspokenly anti-war candidate in his primary. Is moderate a synonym for electable? Al Gore, John Kerry, and Hillary Clinton’s Wikipedia pages might beg to differ.
At Slate, we believe that criticism should be constructive and uplifting, so here is my suggestion for what Nancy Pelosi could have said instead: “We have a lot of great candidates in the primary, and the recent election has proven once again that the Democratic Party’s platform is highly popular with voters. We look forward to 2020 and will contest any claim against its legitimacy with both the Constitution and the support of the public on our side.” What would have been wrong with that?