If there’s one reason why Joe Biden will be occupying the White House on Jan. 20, it’s Nancy Pelosi. Whether to bless or blast her for this outcome to the 2020 elections, the most turbulent since those of the Civil War, depends on your point of view. But the game itself belonged more to her than anyone else. She had to play it skillfully, and she did.
Pelosi is the most capable Democratic politician on Capitol Hill since the late Tip O’Neill, and arguably the best one in either legislative branch of government since Lyndon B. Johnson. Her skills are those of the backroom and the corridor; she is not a gifted orator, and her sex would have precluded any executive ambitions she might have had. She rose as high as a woman of her generation could, and she has stayed there now into her 80s.
Her greatest achievement has been electing Joe Biden as president.
Pelosi was not a kingmaker. Lest we forget, there were two dozen candidates for the Democratic presidential nomination this year, and the chaos of our primary system requires the wise to withhold their bets — just ask those who thought Jeb Bush had the Republican nomination sewed up in 2016. But she threw in her stake in the summer and fall of 2019, even if not in so many words. What she did, ostensibly in response to pressure from her House caucus and other leading Democrats, was to go forward with an impeachment proceeding against Donald Trump.
Trump committing impeachable offenses was evident from the first day of his administration, and there were many who saw impeachment as the predictable and necessary end of a lawless presidency. This was not practical, however, until Democrats regained a majority in the House of Representatives in 2018, a victory widely ascribed to Pelosi’s insistence on running a national campaign based not on Trump’s many egregious offenses but on his threat to repeal Obamacare, the health care reform bill that had owed its existence to Pelosi’s steady hand eight years earlier.
With a Democratic majority, the House could now impeach Trump — that is, present an indictment for a trial to the Senate. What Pelosi lacked, however, and what she knew she could not get, was the two-thirds majority in the Senate required to actually convict Trump and remove him from office.
There were those who thought that the House should proceed with impeachment regardless if only to make a permanent public record of Trump’s offenses and to vindicate the honor of the Lower House of Congress at least.
I was among them.
It seemed to me that for Congress to remain silent in the face of a man who was inarguably guilty of precisely the offenses specified in the Constitution for removal of a president was not only to leave Trump’s own abuses unrectified, but to essentially declare an imperial presidency unaccountable by law. Why, then, did Pelosi resist all pressure to bring a bill of impeachment for a year and a half?
The answer is not far to seek: no prosecutor wants to bring a case she knows she will lose. A failed impeachment would not shame a man who knew no shame and only provides further evidence of his hold on a party and a base that had become his. There was no upside to certain defeat. In Pelosi’s world, there never is. But then, well into the beginning of the 2020 campaign and seemingly past the point when by any conventional yardstick impeachment made political sense, Pelosi abruptly reversed herself. She took it upon herself to send her troops into a battle she knew they would lose.
Only one explanation will serve for that: Pelosi lost a battle for the sake of protecting her ability to win a war.
The issue that brought Pelosi into the list was the revelation that Donald Trump had attempted to bring political and military pressure on the newly elected president of Ukraine, Volodymyr Zelensky, to force an investigation of alleged profiteering by Joe Biden’s son Hunter. The objective was to embarrass the senior Biden, then regarded as the frontrunner for the Democratic presidential nomination, and possibly to derail his candidacy.
It may have been the only thing that Trump and Pelosi ever agreed on, but Pelosi too thought that Biden would be Trump’s most formidable challenger in the 2020 election. To be sure, Biden had many liabilities. His long record had scars. His two previous attempts at the presidency had ended in failure, and one in disgrace. Barack Obama had edged him out of the race in 2016, judging him not of presidential caliber. He was too old.
Pelosi had known Biden for decades. She was unlikely to have harbored illusions about him. But she would not have seen in any other contender the requisite ability, experience or temperament to defeat Trump. Above all, she wished to block the candidacy of Bernie Sanders, which she with the rest of the Democratic establishment saw as disastrous. Biden, in short, had to be rescued. Turning the tables on Trump for attempting to coerce a foreign leader into intervening in an American election was the strategy for doing so.
Impeachment would be the means. Many in Pelosi’s caucus were eager to pile their long list of charges against Trump into the bill of impeachment. She saw to it that only two survived, both relating to Trump’s communications with Zelensky about Biden. The real trial of Trump would be in the House Judiciary Committee, where Trump’s attempt to defame Biden would be shown to be baseless and his own abuse of power established.
Trump’s exoneration in the Senate would be merely anticlimactic. More importantly, the onus of accusation would be off Biden and on Trump instead. Unsurprisingly, Trump treated his acquittal in the Senate as a triumph. But Hunter Biden’s service on the board of a Ukrainian energy company run by an oligarch — a dubious enough exploitation of his father’s power and influence — was never an issue again, and when Trump tried to resurrect it at the very end of his campaign it fell flat.
The impeachment had served its purpose. All this, however, was not enough to resuscitate Biden’s own badly flailing campaign, which saw him far out of the running in the first four Democratic primaries, and with Sanders accumulating what looked to many like an unstoppable momentum for the nomination. Riding to the rescue was Pelosi’s lieutenant Jim Clyburn, the House Majority Whip, who managed to bring out enough Black voters in South Carolina to give Biden his first primary victory in three presidential campaigns. This pulse, faint as it was, signaled an orchestrated rush of virtually every other candidate in the race to endorse Biden. Nothing could have been more transparent than this sudden abdication. If stopping Trump was the common objective of everyone in the Democratic Party, stopping Sanders was that of the party establishment.
There was clear unity in this, and perhaps common consensus. But only Nancy Pelosi could have thrown the switch so swiftly and so decisively. Backroom politics had triumphed as never before since the institution of the modern primary system, and never more openly. It was one of the political coups of the century.
We will never know whether Sanders could have won a race against Trump or any of the other Democratic alternatives. Joe Biden did win. It will take time to discover what this will mean for the country. It is already clear what Biden owes to Pelosi. She played the long game for him, and she took in the chips.