On Thursday morning, the House Judiciary Committee voted to formally establish the rules of an impeachment investigation into President Donald Trump.
Which means what exactly? That depends on who you ask.
“We’re conducting an impeachment investigation into the culture of corruption, abuse of power and obstruction of justice,” said House Democratic Caucus chairman Hakeem Jeffries (New York) after the vote.
Less than 24 hours earlier, House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (Maryland) had flatly rejected the idea that the vote was tantamount to an impeachment inquiry before having to walk that back via a remarkable bit of word salad-ry.
Speaker Nancy Pelosi (California) speaking after the vote, pointedly refused to use the word “impeachment” in reference to the vote. “I support what is happening in the Judiciary Committee that enables them to do their process of interrogation and their investigation, and I salute them for that work,” she said.
Asked if she is uncomfortable with the term “impeachment inquiry” and if people should be using a different term, Pelosi became visibly frustrated.
“We are on our path. Where it takes us is where the – we will follow the facts,” Pelosi said.
Nadler himself wants to be done with labels entirely. “Some call this process an impeachment inquiry,” he said Thursday. “Some call it an impeachment investigation. There is no legal difference between these terms, and I no longer care to argue about the nomenclature.” (Sidebar: Is that a sneaky “Big Lebowski” reference by Nadler?)
Like I said: Different strokes for different folks! Which is bad news for Democratic messaging.
“The politics of impeachment are debatable,” tweeted former Obama White House senior adviser Dan Pfeiffer. “Maybe they are good. Maybe they aren’t. No one knows. But I do know that the current Democratic strategy of telling the base they are impeaching Trump and telling the moderates the opposite is an absolute disaster.”
That about sums it up.
Speaking of strokes, think of it another way. If you’ve ever played tennis, you know that one of the first rules you learn is to not get caught in “no man’s land” – the area between the net and the baseline. Why? Because the ball will be forever bouncing right at your feet, making it very tough to return it with any sort of consistency. You need to commit to the net or commit to the baseline. Don’t get caught in between.
“No man’s land” is right where Democrats find themselves on impeachment at the moment – both on the semantics of whether to use the word “impeachment” and on the broader question of whether it makes sense, politically and otherwise, for Democrats to pursue impeachment against Trump. In fact, the fight over what to call what happened Thursday in the Judiciary Committee reflects the overall uncertainty among Democrats.
Pelosi has been a leading voice in the wait-and-see camp. Back in March, she told The Washington Post this:
“Impeachment is so divisive to the country that unless there’s something so compelling and overwhelming and bipartisan, I don’t think we should go down that path, because it divides the country. And he’s just not worth it.”
And she hasn’t diverted from that path – even as a majority of her caucus now support open an impeachment inquiry into Trump. (Again, is that what happened on Thursday? It’s not totally clear – to me or, well, most everyone else.)
Liberals within the Democratic caucus have grown more and more vocal in their desire to see Trump impeached – or at least the process begun to make that happen.
The problem for Pelosi and House Democrats more generally is this: A majority of the country opposes impeachment even as the party’s base strongly supports it.
In a recent Monmouth University poll, 6 in 10 people said they opposed impeaching Trump. A smaller majority (51%) said that Nadler opening an impeachment inquiry is a bad idea. But the same poll showed 7 in 10 self-identified Democrats favor both impeaching Trump and Nadler opening an investigation to do that.
Rock, meet hard place.
Which is why Democrats find themselves at sixes and sevens when it comes to even talking about whether or not what happened Thursday morning was formalizing an impeachment inquiry.
Where the party is on impeachment is totally unsustainable. Sort of, kind of, impeaching the President makes no one happy. Pick a position – and a message and go with it – or run the risk of spending the next year trying to return tennis balls slammed directly at your feet.