WASHINGTON (AP) - The day after Democrats swept to power, Speaker-to-be Nancy Pelosi stood before the cameras and declared impeachment was “off the table.” That was November 2006.
It’s a remarkably consistent stance from Pelosi, who voted against the impeachment of Bill Clinton, tamped down efforts to impeach George W. Bush and now is leading the House through another moment when a vocal part of the electorate wants to end a presidency.
Pelosi’s reluctance to launch impeachment proceedings infuriates the left flank and is testing her ability to hold restive House Democrats in line. But it also shows the political calculation of a seasoned leader who knows “public sentiment is everything,” as she often says, and for now at least, Americans seem to prefer investigations to impeachment.
As Washington awaits special counsel Robert Mueller’s report, the Democratic leader knows her party has little to gain and much to lose if they launch headlong into impeachment proceedings that are seen as partisan. House Republicans learned as much when then-Speaker Newt Gingrich’s majority lost seats after their long campaign to impeach Clinton. When it comes to Trump, she recently told The Washington Post, “he’s just not worth it.”
“So many of you have said to me: ‘Why are you saying this now?’” she told reporters later. “Because I have said it almost every day. But if I frame it that way, it gets more attention.”
Rick Tyler, a GOP strategist and former Gingrich spokesman, says Pelosi has been a “keen observer” of history during her 30 years in the House and understands “impeachments are an inherently political process.”
Even if the investigations bear out that Trump is “worthy of impeachment,” he said, there’s the political reality of a divided Congress that must agree. The House impeaches and sends the case to trial in the Senate. There, Republicans have the majority and would have the final say on conviction and removal, and “she knows full well there’s no way in God’s green earth the Senate is going to convict Donald Trump.”
Pelosi has been down this road before. She stood on the House floor in 1998 and railed against Republicans for “hypocrisy” ahead of the votes against Clinton. Years later, as the Iraq war dragged on, her left flank led by then-Rep. Dennis Kucinich of Ohio drew up articles of impeachment against Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney.
The day after the 2006 midterm elections that swept Democrats to power, Pelosi was asked how she, as the speaker-to-be from San Francisco, would handle those pushing the impeachment debate.
“Democrats are not about getting even,” Pelosi said at the time. “Democrats are about helping the American people get ahead, and that’s what our agenda is about. So while some people are excited about prospects that they have in terms of their priorities, they are not our priorities. I have said, and I say again, that impeachment is off the table.”
She also noted that while she takes “great pride” in representing her California district, she “very, very, very much” respects that she would serve “as the speaker of the full House, not of the Democrats.”
The Democratic chairman of the House Oversight Committee during the Bush era, former Rep. Henry Waxman of California, recalled that Pelosi was unwavering in her approach to impeachment, in part because she knew it would go nowhere in the Senate.
“A lot of our friends were saying, ‘Impeach him!’ because they didn’t like his policies,” Waxman said. “That wasn’t in the cards.”
By 2008, the House had voted to shelve Kucinich’s impeachment resolution.
As Pelosi campaigned last fall before Democrats again took the majority, she suggested that had Democrats pushed the impeachment issue during the Bush years, her party would have never won back the White House and Barack Obama would not have become president.
“People wanted me to impeach Bush because of the war in Iraq,” she told The Associated Press during a campaign swing ahead of the 2018 midterm elections.
“If we had gone down that path, I doubt we would have won the White House the next time,” she said. “People have to see we’re working there for them.”
But this time is different. Billionaire Tom Steyer is running ads over impeachment, high-profile members of Congress are pushing the issue and Trump is facing more voluminous, if not more serious, allegations of collaborating with Russia to interfere in the 2016 election.
Pelosi is tamping down expectations ahead of Mueller’s report, saying the House will wait to see “the facts of the case” while the House committees conduct their own oversight of the Trump administration.
Another former Gingrich aide, Rich Galen, remembers the way the Clinton impeachment hearings just “sucked the oxygen out of the House side of the Capitol.” He also remembers the sinking feeling on election night in 1998 when House Republicans thought they would add to their ranks, but instead saw seats slipping away. Gingrich was later booted from party leadership.
“I’m not Pelosi’s biggest fan,” Galen said, “but I think she’s got that right.”
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