Perhaps the most unlikely winner in yesterday’s debacle of testimony from former special counsel Robert Mueller was none other than speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi. Although the day-long hearings are widely and rightly viewed as a disaster for Democrats, with Mueller at times seeming to be completely ignorant of what was supposedly part of his own investigation, for Pelosi the train wreck may well be a blessing in disguise.
This is because the speaker’s number one priority in recent months has been to stave off impassioned but irrational calls to impeach President Trump. With many in her caucus foaming at the mouth, led by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and her “Squad,” to impeach anything that moves, Pelosi has urged caution. She even, along with Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, brokered a budget deal with Trump this week that can be counted as quite a Democrat win.
While House Judiciary Chairman Rep. Jerry Nadler was grimacing and wondering why he had been so boneheaded as to call Mueller, who barely seemed awake, in to testify, Pelosi must have beaming. This was the latest, if not the last, of the big gotcha moments, when everything was supposed to come together to make the firm case that Trump has broken the law and must be impeached. But yet again, it turned out to be no such thing.
At a time the zeitgeist of her party seems totally focused on fantasies of removing the president, and his potential rivals in the Democratic primary are basically publicly promising free abortions for illegal immigrant trans men, Pelosi is trying to maintain a little dignity for Democrats. Is this still the party of Thomas Jefferson and Andrew Jackson? Or has it now become the party of Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib?
One can easily imagine Pelosi, seated in the speaker’s office, that wry smile creeping over her face as Mueller time and again made clear that not only was he unfamiliar with much of his own investigation, but that clearly someone else was actually running it. Her greatest fear had been that powerful testimony from the unimpeachable Mueller would lead to howls for impeachment of Trump by more of her party. Instead, today it seems far more likely that most Democrats will simply want to move on from yesterday’s debacle.
For those old enough to remember 1998, this will all have a familiar ring. Like the Squad and Democratic presidential hopefuls, many conservatives back then were desperate to impeach Bill Clinton. Don’t worry, they said, this will accrue to our benefit. It didn’t. In fact it did more to varnish than to stain Clinton. Pelosi remembers that, and is determined not to walk that same path.
With Trump seeming to pivot to a kind of normalcy — as normal as he can be, anyway — by among other things cutting deals with Pelosi, the speaker’s position in her intramural fight is only getting stronger. For months now, she has been has been engaging in a careful campaign against the Squad, a political force she once embraced, but that is really an existential threat to her party. Had Mueller so much as seemed sentient yesterday, it would have emboldened her young rivals, but, well, he did not.
This is not the end of the war over the soul of the Democratic Party, but it is an important win for Pelosi, who is now unlikely to see the next year and a half of her speakership mired in a pointless impeachment proceeding. It will be interesting to see if any of the presidential candidates heed this win by the speaker and move a little to a center that has so far been occupied by tumbleweeds in the nascent primary.
Sometimes big political moments are punctuated by loud, solid exclamation points. Yesterday, the Russian collusion investigation died with a sad whimper. This is not something Pelosi is in a position to gloat about. There will not be a victory lap, unless maybe someday she writes a book, but it is still a huge win for her. For the time being, at least until the Squad and radicals in Pelosi’s party find something new to be outraged about, things will calm down a bit.
The final embers of the calls to impeach Trump slowly went cold yesterday in the House of Representatives. With that potential circus now seemingly avoided, one might even wonder if it’s possible that Trump and Pelosi can continue to work together to, well, govern. That might seem like a long shot, but the odds of it increased enormously with every confused answer from Mueller, and it no longer feels like a pipe dream.