What Happens Now
Donald Trump is unpredictable, Nancy Pelosi is predictable. But his behavior is going to inevitably influence hers for the next 18 months.
My take: The Speaker has to play three-dimensional chess to grapple with the twisted realities created by the Chaos President.
The trio of tracks: legislating, investigating/impeachment, and the presidential election.
Let’s look at each one.
Legislating: After Wednesday’s Trump-Pelosi clash, it would seem impossible that the joint whip operations (or, at least, vote counting cooperation) that would be required to pass the Canada-Mexico trade deal, an infrastructure package, or a prescription drug measure could be pulled off. Barring a cataclysmic change in dynamics, it would appear that any bipartisan legislating (besides a budget deal and a debt ceiling increase) is done and dusted for the balance of Trump’s term. That probably helps Democrats politically (allowing them to paint Trump as a can’t-do, petulant president), but Pelosi probably couldn’t achieve any bipartisan compromise even if she wanted to. Even the “must pass” budget and debt limit increase are going to be monstrously difficult to achieve.
Investigating/impeachment: Wednesday’s events continue to provide Pelosi the upper hand in keeping the House on track to investigate Trump without launching the impeachment proceedings that the Speaker’s allies believe could lead inexorably to Trump’s re-election. In a bizarro world reality, the Wall Street Journal ed board basically agrees with Pelosi.
These Wall Street Journal news headlines all provide the Speaker back up for her key talking point within the Democratic caucus: with help from the courts and tough negotiations with the administration, Democrats are getting what they need to keep the various Trump probes moving along, without impeachment:
Second Judge Rules Against Trump on Subpoenas
New York Backs Release of Trump Taxes
Panel to See More Mueller Documents
The Old Media’s conventional wisdom — that Pelosi got the better of Trump on Wednesday, in part because she gets inside his head and outplays him — also serves to strengthen her hand against the relatively small number of House Democrats who want to start impeachment proceedings now. That dynamic is enshrined in this important Politico story.
The New York Times adds this single important caveat: “The one thing that could quickly push Ms. Pelosi toward impeachment, people close to her said, would be a mass defection of new members. That has not happened yet, but several members of the class of 2018 said the speaker was mistaken if she assumed they would oppose impeachment to save their seats next year.”
The presidential election: Pelosi wants to replicate what the Democratic Senate leader, George Mitchell, did in 1991 and 1992, by using legislative power to make the incumbent president’s life miserable and create the environment in which a strong Democratic standard bearer can emerge from the nomination process and win the general election.
All the data from this week suggests what last week’s data indicated: as of right this moment, the ONLY person who makes that scenario viable is Joe Biden. No other candidate is demonstrating they have what Pelosi and many other members of the party establishment (and the media) believe is required to beat Trump.
The wise tribunal of said establishment, the Los Angeles Times Doyle McManus, neatly explains why Biden is doing so well against his rivals and, implicitly, why logically he is the ONLY candidate Pelosi could trust at this point to win. (Important and eternal caveat: many past frontrunners in both parties have lost bigger leads than Biden has now. But it isn’t as “early” as most pundits say it is.)
As long as Biden is the frontrunner (and, barring a self-inflicted collapse, it looks like he will be for some time), the Pelosi Plan faces two perils.
First, as Karl Rove points out in his Wall Street Journal column, the centrifugal force caused by the progressive wing of the party is leading many of the Democratic candidates to adopt stances that could define the party as too far to the left to win a general election, even if Biden himself largely stays in the center-left.
Second, Biden could get through most of 2019 without facing serious challenge, allowing him to bridge into 2020 with a strong chance to win the nomination but without honing the skills and operation required to win a general election.
In sum, as much sound and fury as Washington produced on Wednesday, we are back where we were at the start of the week: legislative compromise seems like a long shot; Pelosi is still successfully fighting off impeachment efforts she thinks would be politically ruinous; and Biden is the strong frontrunner for the nomination, with some serious general election questions remaining, largely hidden beneath the surface.