Nancy Pelosi announced late Tuesday afternoon that an official "impeachment inquiry" is under way. It is a sign of how depressing is our politics and how terrifying is Trump that so many commentators and pundits are now beside themselves with glee.
"Finally, she has done it!" Yes, finally.
After completely squandering the opportunities presented by the Mueller Report and Mueller's Congressional testimony, Pelosi has been motivated by Trump's outrageous "whistleblower" scandal to act. Many are again exulting in her tactical brilliance. But unless she engineered the entire "whistleblower"” scandal, it would seem wise to regard the current moment as an opportunity, and nothing more, to demonstrate a kind of savvy that has thus far been lacking.
Pelosi deserves two cheers. One for finally coming around to own the "I" word instead of disparaging and obstructing it, and for bringing with her many other on-the-fence Democrats (or did they bring along her?). She deserves a second for beginning her brief speech with a very clear and powerful explanation of how the latest Trump violation of law and the oath of office requires serious Congressional response. Two cheers. But no more.
For while Pelosi's speech upped the ante rhetorically, it failed to outline a clear strategy for actually making an impeachment inquiry effectual. Indeed, beyond uttering the word "impeachment" without disdain, her speech offered little new at all. She declared that all six relevant committees would "continue" their inquiries "under the umbrella" of impeachment. What does this even mean? And have there really been active, effective, well-publicized inquiries by any committee outside of Judiciary? Really? Who knew?
"Moving toward impeachment now can only be justified as part of a political effort to weaken and then defeat this president in 2020."
Apparently in the House Democratic caucus meeting there was some objection from some on the left that Pelosi was seeking to dilute the efforts of Rep. Jerry Nadler (D-NY), who has been trying, if fecklessly, to run an impeachment investigation through the House Judiciary Committee. Whatever his faults, Nadler had seized a leadership role that Pelosi had avoided, and tried to concentrate attention on Trump's malfeasance in his committee hearings. Now it would appear that there will be six separate investigations going on simultaneously. Unless Pelosi's "umbrella" can perform miracles, it is not clear how this will be effective, in an investigative sense or in capturing public attention.
So many are so eager to celebrate something that they are forgetting that impeachment is not so much a legal move as it is a necessary, constitutionally-prescribed political response to a dangerous president. Unless some extraordinary revelations follow in the coming days, there continues to be almost no chance that Senate Republicans would ever convict Trump of impeachment charges. Moving toward impeachment now can only be justified as part of a political effort to weaken and then defeat this president in 2020.
If the Democrats are to pursue such an approach in a savvy rather than a self-defeating way, they need to recognize that the Republican-controlled Senate can be relied upon to inveigh against— and certainly to obstruct—an impeachment by all means necessary. It is what takes place in the House, under the control of the Democratic majority, that is crucial. The House must commence a vigorous process of investigation, inquiry, and deliberation that can do two important things:
1. Relentlessly call attention to Trump's malfeasance in office, his hostility to the Constitution, and his failure to run a government and to discharge his official duties;
2. Make very public that while Trump's Republican Party is the party of corruption, hostility to the rule of law, and election meddling and voter suppression, the Democratic Party is the party of legality, transparency, political fairness, and democracy.
What is most important is that this impeachment process should be serious, protracted, and very public, and that at every phase the proceedings be televised, and accompanied by a very savvy Democratic mass media and social media strategy designed to publicize the wrongs of the Trump administration.
The current "whistleblower" scandal is a terrific opening for public hearings to be held on a wide range of themes:
1. The issues raised by all sections of the Mueller Report;
2. Questions of corruption related to the Emoluments Clause, but also to the maladministration of federal departments and agencies by corrupt appointees who were forced to resign in disgrace;
3. The questionable handling of security clearances for Trump's family members and cronies;
4. Trump's declaration of a "national emergency" to appropriate money for his wall;
5. The ways that under Trump voting rights and civil rights have been abridged; and
6. The general confusion and chaos that has plagued the executive branch of the government under a President who does not read, who Tweets crazy comments every day, and who spends more time golfing, at his own resorts, than any previous President—clear signs of Trump's failure to do his job.
All of these matters are legitimate topics of an impeachment inquiry which, if done carefully and fairly, would provide a serious public forum for the judgment of the Trump presidency and its manifest failures.
Such an impeachment inquiry could summon for public testimony a wide range of current and former members of the Trump administration; members of the Mueller team, including Mueller himself; and also a wide range of experts—legal scholars, historians, management consultants, and journalists, especially those who are former Republicans in good standing—who could comment, in public hearings, about the ways that the Trump administration has either violated the letter or the spirit of the law, or has otherwise seriously endangered constitutional democracy.
As Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-Md.) said a few months ago, the point of an impeachment inquiry is to bring "constitutional clarity" to the various controversies and investigations, precisely in order to educate the public and build support for the removal of Trump from office. And while there is a small chance this removal could come via a conviction on impeachment charges, Democratic eyes really must remain focused on the prize: the electoral defeat of Trump and his party in 2020.
The main goals of impeachment must be public education and voter mobilization.
This will require the kind of focus and coordination and scheduling and public relations that can only come from the House Democratic leadership.
Is Pelosi up to this task? We can only watch and see. And hope.