Nancy Pelosi is not scared of protests and editorials. She is scared of more victorious leftist challengers.
The drumbeat over impeachment continues unabated this week. Every day, some new outrage committed by Donald Trump makes news headlines. Last Wednesday, it was his insinuation that he would welcome foreign interference in the 2020 election. On Sunday, it was his offhanded suggestion that his supporters may push him to serve more than two terms. House Democratic leadership blasted both of these statements as dangerous and damaging to the country. But neither of them changes Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s overall political calculus: forego impeachment and focus on the 2020 election.
This decision by Pelosi has set left-leaning media abuzz ever since the release of the Mueller report. Liberal commentators have emphasized the need to impeach for a variety of reasons. Both pundits and elected officials have harped on the idea of constitutional “duty” as a reason for impeachment. Members of Congress gave an oath to protect and uphold the Constitution, and the only way to do so against a president bent on undermining that document is to impeach him. These same advocates for impeachment swat away many of Pelosi’s counterarguments. They disagree with her assertion that impeachment may help energize the Republican base, and they dismiss the argument that Trump’s certain acquittal in the Senate would render the process moot.
The main problem with these entreaties to Pelosi is that they will not work. In a post-shame age, Pelosi and her supporters in the House need to have their careers and positions threatened before they take action they believe is against their political interests.
Congressional leaders certainly appeal to political optics and public opinion. They want to reflect the will of their voters and the special interest groups that fund their campaigns. But this tendency does not translate to following their strongest partisans. As experienced politicians who started their careers long before the social media age, Pelosi and other congressional leaders know that media narratives and activist blogs are not the factors that will decide their futures. A handful of scathing editorials and bad headlines mean nothing if Pelosi is able to secure moderate votes in her tightest swing districts, thereby padding her majority and securing her position. Even protests have little power against seasoned Democratic leaders, especially in today’s fractured media environment and 24-hour news cycles.
The one step that progressive critics can take to change the views of House leadership is by primary challenges from the left. As Joe Crowley learned last year, a successful primary challenge can take the job of a House leader faster than any lost endorsement or moderate Ohio voter. There is even a precedent in recent American history for such a shift. Factional primaries were how Tea Party conservatives captured the Republican Party and helped complete its transformation into a tool of the far-right conservative movement.
Leftists will not be able to win every primary or knock off every Democratic leader. In fact, they do not even need to win the majority of their races. They only need to provide a credible threat, an extra incentive for Speaker Pelosi, Chuck Schumer, and the rest of Democratic leadership to take concrete steps to implement left-leaning elements of their platform. There will most likely be older, moderate leaders in the party for the next few years. The only force that will change their behavior, and shift their calculus on political survival, is the idea that activists and not donors may cause them to lose their jobs.