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Nancy Pelosi's Long Game

Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., is surrounded by reporters as she arrives to meet with her caucus the morning after declaring she will launch a formal impeachment inquiry against President Donald Trump, at the Capitol in Washington, Wednesday, Sept. 25, 2019. (J. Scott Applewhite/AP)
Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., is surrounded by reporters as she arrives to meet with her caucus the morning after declaring she will launch a formal impeachment inquiry against President Donald Trump, at the Capitol in Washington, Wednesday, Sept. 25, 2019. (J. Scott Applewhite/AP)

When my kids were young, like most new parents, I struggled to find the right balance between teaching respect and punishing the lack of it, between letting the children learn from their own mistakes versus imposing “consequences,” between affording them freedom and keeping them safe, between addressing the misdeeds of the acting-out child while still giving the well-behaved one the attention she deserved.

I wish Nancy Pelosi had been my friend, confidante, or coach back then. Her leadership of her party, the House, and the big baby in the White House has been a master class in how to navigate the rocky shoals and crazy currents created by these types of conflicts. And now that she has called for formal impeachment proceedings to begin, I can’t help but think that she was steering the boat in that direction all along.

As I’ve argued in the past, the decision as to whether or not to impeach is fundamentally a political one, based not on whether a president’s actions constitute criminal conduct, but on whether it abuses the powers of the office or is otherwise harmful to the best interests of the country. And there’s no doubt that Trump, the Eddie Haskell of American presidents, has. He has run the country the way he’s run his businesses – relying on lies and veiled extortion, reneging on commitments, using public office to fuel personal gain, hiring and firing based not on the qualifications of his candidates but on their willingness to cater to his vanity.

Trump, emboldened by the lack of consequences he’s faced until now, went and did it again, just as Nancy Pelosi knew he would.

But until now, wary of exciting his base still more, jeopardizing Democratic candidates in swing districts, and possibly even eager to get some meaningful legislation accomplished, Pelosi had put the brakes on impeachment.

So what changed? After all, the Mueller report had already documented the ways in which Trump and his cronies welcomed Russian interference in the U.S. election, downplayed and lied about its occurring, and made at least 10 attempts to obstruct justice and derail the investigation. And while yes, one can argue that arming Ukraine to fight off attempts at further Russian control may be in our national interest, it is hardly important relative to other, far more pressing concerns.

What changed was precisely that Trump, emboldened by the lack of consequences he’s faced until now, went and did it again, just as Nancy Pelosi knew he would. He obstructed the will of Congress by putting a hold on aid they explicitly allocated for Ukraine, while concurrently using his personal attorney and clown double, Rudy Giuliani, to pressure the new Ukrainian government to dig up dirt on his political opponent. And any honest American knows that this behavior is wrong.

Between the ages of two and five, most children start demonstrating signs of moral development. They have a sense, albeit imperfect, of right and wrong, and are capable of remorse. But Trump lacks the developmental maturity of a toddler, and impeachment won’t alter that. Not only will the cowardly Senate most likely vote not to convict (if McConnell lets them vote at all), but sick narcissist that he is, Trump cannot change.

No, perhaps ironically, the move to impeach represents an attempt by the Democratic House to demonstrate to a polarized public that they can govern responsibly. Nancy Pelosi, who in 1998 helped write the law protecting whistle-blowers in the intelligence community, knows when a tyrannical and self-serving president is not only defying but fundamentally ridiculing the role of the legislative branch. And she, her party, the seven freshman Democrats from swing districts who wrote an Op-Ed in favor of impeachment, and maybe even a handful of Republicans who, having a scintilla of honor and/or the savviness to flee a listing ship, are trying to salvage the constitutional democracy that’s under attack by this administration.

President Donald Trump meets with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy at the InterContinental Barclay New York hotel during the United Nations General Assembly, Wednesday, Sept. 25, 2019, in New York. (Evan Vucci/AP)
President Donald Trump meets with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy at the InterContinental Barclay New York hotel during the United Nations General Assembly, Wednesday, Sept. 25, 2019, in New York. (Evan Vucci/AP)

For many years my kids did well in school with minimal effort. They probably could have gotten decent test scores even when skipping classes and slacking off on homework for longer than they did. But the issue wasn’t whether they could get good grades without even trying. As mushy a mom as I sometimes was, I didn’t want them to get away with it. As parents, we were responsible for teaching them to study and to work, because sooner or later, they’d need to, and my husband and I were willing to endure the sulks that came with the clampdown.

Similarly, there is little political gain for Pelosi et al to engage what the right calls a witch hunt and what even many Democrats consider to be a distraction. Until this week, public opinion polls have consistently shown roughly 55% of Americans opposing impeachment.

In light of recent events, that tide may be turning. A YouGov poll taken earlier this week asked “If President Donald Trump suspended military aid to Ukraine in order to incentivize the country’s officials to investigate his political rival, Joe Biden, and his son, would you support or oppose impeachment?” More than half indicated that they’d support it.

But even if public sentiment is unchanged now, like rueful young adults looking back on their adolescence, history will look kindly upon the efforts of the House this week. They are acting to keep a dangerous president in check, or failing that, to make it harder for the next wild adolescent in office to get away with it.

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Julie Wittes Schlack Twitter Cognoscenti contributor
Julie Wittes Schlack writes essays, short stories and book reviews for various publications, including WBUR's Cognoscenti and The ARTery, and is the author of “This All-at-Onceness” (Pact Press, 2019).

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