Why the Democrats' impeachment drive is in trouble — and what Nancy Pelosi needs to do about it

With impeachment likely, House Speaker Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiMcCarthy: Pelosi appointing members of Jan. 6 panel who share 'pre-conceived narrative' Kinzinger denounces 'lies and conspiracy theories' while accepting spot on Jan. 6 panel Pelosi taps Kinzinger to serve on Jan. 6 panel MORE (D-Calif.) surely is considering House “managers,” or prosecutors, to present the case at a Senate trial of President TrumpDonald TrumpRonny Jackson, former White House doctor, predicts Biden will resign McCarthy: Pelosi appointing members of Jan. 6 panel who share 'pre-conceived narrative' Kinzinger denounces 'lies and conspiracy theories' while accepting spot on Jan. 6 panel MORE. She would be well-advised not to go the traditional route in choosing the lead manager. That would be to appoint either Jerrold NadlerJerrold (Jerry) Lewis NadlerHere's what Congress is reading at the beach this summer Activists see momentum as three new states legalize marijuana Supreme Court expansion push starts to fizzle MORE (D-N.Y.), chair of the House Judiciary Committee, or Adam SchiffAdam Bennett SchiffHouse erupts in anger over Jan. 6 and Trump's role Six takeaways: What the FEC reports tell us about the midterm elections Lobbying world MORE (D-Calif.), chair of the House Intelligence Committee.   

She must go bold because the Democrats are in trouble and need a game-changer. Nancy Pelosi should choose herself to lead the House impeachment managers in the Senate. 

Imagine the Democrats as a football team at the end of the first half of a game. Until now, they have had every advantage, including playing in their home stadium and having referees (themselves) who call plays in their favor and more players on the field than the opposing Republicans. (In the House hearings, Democrats selected the witnesses and fielded three constitutional experts to the Republicans’ one.)  

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Yet at halftime the public opinion scoreboard, which is the one that really counts, shows a virtually tied game. The Republicans will start the second half in their home stadium with referees (themselves) who will not cut the Democrats any breaks. Does anyone not engaged in magical thinking seriously believe that the Democrats will do better in the second half than they did in the first? Most likely, they will do worse.

Democrats should be shocked by the deep division in public opinion given the testimony from State Department and national security officials that Trump nearly sacrificed the security of Ukraine, a democracy and vital American ally, so he could game the 2020 election in his favor. Reflecting that divide, Sen. Chris MurphyChristopher (Chris) Scott MurphyOvernight Defense: US launches another airstrike in Somalia | Amendment to expand Pentagon recusal period added to NDAA | No. 2 State Dept. official to lead nuclear talks with Russia US launches second Somalia strike in week On The Money: Senate braces for nasty debt ceiling fight | Democrats pushing for changes to bipartisan deal | Housing prices hit new high in June MORE (D-Conn.) suggested last week that at most there are five Republican senators who could vote to convict and remove the president. How will Democrats find the fifteen additional Republican votes in the Senate to convict and remove Trump from office (assuming Murphy is right, and all Democrats and independents vote that way)?  

Pardon another football analogy, but a head coach whose team at halftime is on its way to a loss needs to shake things up on the field. Here, of course, the head coach is Pelosi.  

Certainly, Nadler and Schiff have been immersed in the facts and constitutional theory underlying impeachment. But let’s face it, neither is overburdened with charisma and a compelling presence. It’s hard to see them shaking up the dynamic in the Senate, where the trial will be tightly controlled by Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellGrassley pressured to run as Democrats set sights on Iowa House Democrats grow frustrated as they feel ignored by Senate Democrats question GOP shift on vaccines MORE (R-KY). 

If anything, the trial is less likely to involve dramatic testimony from the likes of Fiona Hill, and more likely to be a staid debate among senators, along the lines of the testimony from the constitutional experts in the House impeachment hearing last Wednesday. It would be a good strategy by Republicans to make the Senate trial as boring and low key as possible, the impeachment equivalent of running out the clock. 

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Drama is needed to convince at least some of the undecided and anti-impeachment electorate to look at Trump’s conduct in a fresh way. There will be plenty of drama if Pelosi is the lead House manager.  

The Pelosi-Trump matchup riveted the country during the 2018-19 government shutdown, and it will be even more compelling at a Senate trial of the president. Pelosi has articulated as well as anyone the reasons for impeaching Trump. She has special credibility as the speaker of the House. Her recent “don’t mess with me” comment to an aggressive reporter from a conservative outlet shows once again that Pelosi is tough as nails. She gets into Trump’s head like no one else.  

Even if Pelosi can’t sway at least 15 Republican senators, she might convince the country that the Democrats were right to impeach and limit the electoral damage to the Democrats in 2020 from a Senate acquittal of Trump. 

Nancy Pelosi needs to get off the sidelines and send herself into the game.

Gregory J. Wallance was a federal prosecutor during the Carter and Reagan administrations. He is the author most recently of “The Woman Who Fought An Empire: Sarah Aaronsohn and Her Nili Spy Ring.” Follow him on Twitter at @gregorywallance.