Since ascending to the Speakership of the House in January, Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiOn The Money: Democrats get to the hard part Biden discusses agenda with Schumer, Pelosi ahead of pivotal week Stefanik in ad says Democrats want 'permanent election insurrection' MORE (D-Calif.) has had a difficult line to walk. The more progressive wing of her caucus wanted to move quickly on impeaching President Donald Trump citing campaign finance violations, the emoluments clause, and the then still-to-be-concluded Mueller investigation. Meanwhile Democrats elected in more moderate districts worried that impeachment would hurt their re-election chances.
Many decisions that leaders make involve the balancing of risks. In criminal justice, the phrase “innocent until proven guilty” is intended to convey a decision that we — as a society — should worry more about the risk of convicting an innocent person than the risk of letting a guilty one walk free. Regulatory decisions also often reflect this “risk-risk” tradeoff. If we regulate vaping products too loosely, these products may harm people. If we regulate them too tightly, we risk more deaths from people smoking tobacco rather than vaping.
In first deciding whether to open an impeachment inquiry, and now facing questions of how quickly to proceed, and whether to have a vote on the floor about opening such an inquiry, Speaker Pelosi has been wrestling with balancing risks. Her task is complicated by the fact that she is weighing the risks to her political party as well as the risks to the country.
As the leader of the Democrats in the House, the Speaker has a responsibility to her party. Pursuing impeachment, if the public does not believe such a course is justified, leaves moderate Democrats open to challenges from Republicans as they seek re-election in 2020. Losing seats held by moderate Democrats in turn puts at risk the Democratic majority in the House. For the first nine months of her term, this risk seems to have predominated in Pelosi’s mind.
However, the Democrats also faced (and continue to face) risks by neglecting to impeach the president. The 2020 campaign for Congress will likely be focused on how people feel about the president since he will be at the top of the Republican ticket. A decision not to impeach clearly sends the signal that the offenses President TrumpDonald TrumpOhio Republican who voted to impeach Trump says he won't seek reelection Youngkin breaks with Trump on whether Democrats will cheat in the Virginia governor's race Trump endorses challenger in Michigan AG race MORE has been found to have committed by Mueller and others are not worthy of impeachment. Not impeaching him would allow Trump to claim that everything — from the obstruction of justice scenarios outlined by Special Counsel Robert MuellerRobert (Bob) MuellerSenate Democrats urge Garland not to fight court order to release Trump obstruction memo Why a special counsel is guaranteed if Biden chooses Yates, Cuomo or Jones as AG Barr taps attorney investigating Russia probe origins as special counsel MORE to the current Ukraine scandal — was nothing more than “fake news” and that the Democrats agreed with him (or else they would have pursued impeachment). This would weaken the Democratic electoral position.
As the Speaker of the House, Pelosi also has the responsibility of considering the risks to the country of either impeaching or not impeaching the president. Impeachment would be a national spectacle, and it is unlikely that Congress would be able to work on other legislation while it progressed (although it’s not clear that the Senate is allowing much legislation to pass anyway).
On the other hand, if one believes, as Speaker Pelosi appears to, that Trump’s offenses amount to the very high crimes and misdemeanors envisioned by the founders, the risk of not impeaching him is to sanction those offenses and give future presidents (of either party) license to pursue them. Not impeaching Trump would also exacerbate the risk of the century-long trend of strengthening the executive branch at the expense of the legislature.
The Ukraine scandal, and the constant drumbeat of revelations that it has unleashed, seems to have changed Speaker Pelosi’s assessment of the risks. Her decision to hold a vote on Thursday on the floor of the House is evidence of this change. As polls indicate growing support for impeachment, the electoral risks to Democrats have shifted — and the risk of not impeaching now outweighs the risk of impeaching for Speaker Pelosi’s party. And the increasing certainty that the president offered Congressionally approved aid to Ukraine in return for investigation of his political rivals (and that he abandoned our Kurdish allies in Syria) has made it clear that the risks of not attempting to remove him from office have increased for the country.
Impeachment by the House has become increasingly likely. Soon the job of assessing risks both to his party and his country will pass to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellLindsey Graham: Police need 'to take a firm line' with Sept. 18 rally attendees Manchin keeps Washington guessing on what he wants CEOs urge Congress to raise debt limit or risk 'avoidable crisis' MORE (R-Ky.).
Stuart Shapiro is professor and director of the Public Policy Program at the Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy at Rutgers University, and a member of the Scholars Strategy Network. Follow him on Twitter @shapiro_stuart.