When Nancy Pelosi announced at the end of September that she and her party would begin an impeachment inquiry, it soon became clear that she had not abandoned her misgivings about the process.
Excitable grassroots types no doubt expected gendarmes at the White House and Donald Trump marching in chains down Constitution Avenue in the early dawn. This did not happen. What followed instead was simply a continuation of Pelosi's own preferred strategy: endless hearings, a carefully targeted series of leaks, and nonstop media discussion of President Trump's alleged misdeeds. This undermines his presidency without forcing her more vulnerable members — to say nothing of her party's eventual presidential nominee — to deal with the consequences of impeachment, which is still far from universally popular. It also spares Democrats the embarrassment of proceeding with an impeachment that will almost certainly not lead to Trump's removal from office by the Senate. The whole business need not culminate in the introduction of actual articles of impeachment, much less in an up-or-down vote on the floor of the House. It can also be abandoned (so she hopes) at some so far unspecified but suitable point next year, on the grounds that Trump has, alas, obstructed for such a long time that the only remedy is the ballot box — insert donation link here.
The problem with this strategy of impeachment in name only is that it is formally unstructured. What Pelosi and most of the Democratic leadership understand as a cynical political stalling tactic is understood by much of the party's younger rank-and-file membership — to say nothing of the always credulous base — as a deathly serious mission to extirpate a tyrant from the republic.
The vote now scheduled for Thursday does not change the reality on the ground. According to the letter Pelosi addressed to Democrats on Monday, the resolution — the text of which has yet to appear — will be formal rather than substantive. Procedures will be established, a framework agreed upon, documents requested. It will not bring the party closer to impeachment itself. But it will remove a few more crucial pegs from the Jenga tower that will inevitably fall at some point between now and November 2020 — the hypothetical moment when refusing to proceed further could actually threaten her leadership.
This risk was inherent in Pelosi's agreement to start using the "i" word in the first place. It was something she attempted to avoid as long as she possibly could. The question now is how much longer she will be able to drag things out. A federal judge last week ruled in favor of Democrats' ability to request and view records related to Robert Mueller's special counsel investigation — which has nothing to do with the latest Ukraine mania — on the grounds that they are related to impeachment even in the absence of official impeachment proceedings. This ruling is unlikely to stand at the Supreme Court — Judge Beryl A. Howell's ludicrous and chronologically confused argument that the administration's refusal is itself sufficient to justify the requests is unlikely to win support even among the high court's liberal wing, or from anyone familiar with the most basic principles of Anglo-American law. Trump himself might not have much patience for the procedural arguments being made by members of his party — and his own lawyers — but it is clear that his opponents take them seriously.
Which is why after a month we are here, doing what Democratic leaders who had any actual faith in the viability of this process would have done in September, outlining a hypothetical path toward possibly, maybe, theoretically taking the first steps towards something their base has spent the last three years screaming for.
It turns out that if you want to enjoy all the political benefits of attempting to impeach the president of the United States, sooner or later you actually have to attempt to impeach him. Imagine that.
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