Democrats have stopped overthinking impeachment

Until Tuesday, Nancy Pelosi, who turns 80 in March, was honouring the rule that people grow cautious with age. The Speaker of the US House of Representatives had balked at the impeachment of Donald Trump over his alleged collusion with Russia. A comparable scandal, in an adjacent country, and suddenly she is nothing like as prudent. Her conversion holds a lesson for enemies of populism everywhere.

The US president is alleged to have pressed Volodymyr Zelensky, his Ukrainian counterpart, to investigate Joe Biden and his relatives. Mr Biden happens to be the leading Democratic contender for Mr Trump’s job.

The barriers to impeachment have not lowered since “Russiagate”. Conviction of a president still requires a supermajority of the Senate. Voters are still unlikely to thank Democrats for the disruption. In the inevitable crossfire of scurrility with the GOP, Mr Biden’s own reputation is liable to suffer.

What has changed is not the calculus of impeachment, then. What has changed is the Democrats’ propensity to calculate. Essentially, the party has stopped overthinking. Rather than second-guess the political consequences of impeachment, their concern is for — do not laugh — the principle.

They have decided that staying their hand to avoid a backlash would set the tawdriest of examples. A president could thereafter do as he or she wanted and bank on opponents to choose a quiet life over the risks of confrontation. Those risks are awesome, no doubt. Get this impeachment wrong and Democrats throw away an eminently winnable election next year. Anything, though, is better than the pundit-isation of leadership, whereby courses of action are parsed for their second-order effects rather than for their innate rightness. What is necessary in a columnist is unbecoming in an office-holder.

After the electoral traumas of recent years, it is natural that liberals lose themselves in game theory about what voters will do in this or that scenario. Natural, but not all that dignified. Hours before Ms Pelosi made her announcement, Britain’s Supreme Court ruled against the prorogation of parliament by Prime Minister Boris Johnson. The decision might incite millions against the Brexit-sceptical petitioners. It might set back the European cause in Britain. But who believes it would be cleverer to let a legal principle drop?

Whether in London or Washington, what liberals are ultimately defending is not any policy but the rule of law: the frame within which a nation paints its politics, not the choice of colours. Protecting the one might entail some sacrifice of the other. Ms Pelosi seems ready to brave the cost. The test is whether she holds to her course if voters revolt.

Encouragingly, even Republicans are curious about Ukraine. All of their senators voted for the intelligence committee to receive the whistleblower’s full complaint. These include people who could see Mr Trump flee a robbed bank in a mask and a hooped top with a sack marked “swag” and still doubt his guilt. Something has shifted. Indeed, a mere impeachment inquiry was the minimum that Ms Pelosi could have announced in the circumstances. Withholding one would not just have split her party. It would have been an invitation to presidential nihilism, as well as a moral forfeit. Liberals will fight for the constitution, it would have suggested, as long as it is politic to do so.

Niccolò Machiavelli’s supposedly clever advice for leaders was to feign virtue: “The vulgar crowd always is taken by appearances, and the world consists chiefly of the vulgar.” But Mr Trump prospers exactly because he does not bother with a virtuous pretence. He understands that furtiveness and hypocrisy are what disgrace politicians in the electorate’s eyes. On Monday, he seemed to all but grant some of the claims against him. An unabashed man cannot be all that guilty, millions will think, and any laws he broke must have been trivial anyway.

The point is that democracy is not a foolproof check on power. Legal and constitutional protocols have to supplement the ballot. This is true even if they incur popular wrath. Perhaps impeachment will be the last glory of Ms Pelosi’s career. Perhaps it will doom her party in 2020. Either way, the Speaker is not a commentator or an adviser. She is third in line to the world’s highest office. There is a limit to how much she can war-game matters of principle.

Mr Trump’s alleged hunt for “kompromat” came after her decision not to impeach him the first time. Liberals have been afraid of their own shadows for years now. They might worry more about what they are inviting.

janan.ganesh@ft.com

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