- - Thursday, June 6, 2019


Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi has updated the old adage, “if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em.” She says “if you can’t impeach him, jail him.” In a closed meeting with several senior congressional Democrats this week, Mrs. Pelosi said “I don’t want to see President Donald Trump impeached, I want to see him in prison.”

The political problem for the speaker, as well as the legal problem of imprisoning someone without a trial, is that there are loud and louder demands on the left to impeach the president. Forty-one percent of Americans now support impeachment and 76 percent of Democrats back the idea, according to a recent CNN poll. Both of those numbers are up over the last month. Independents, however, continue to oppose impeaching Mr. Trump. Self-identified Republicans, naturally, oppose the idea as well.

Even in states where the president is not particularly popular, impeachment isn’t, either. “Michigan voters oppose House lawmakers launching impeachment proceedings against President Donald Trump,” The Detroit News reported this week. “The survey conducted last week of 600 likely Michigan voters found that nearly 53 percent are opposed to the House starting impeachment hearings, while about 40 percent support impeaching Trump.” This in a state that, according to the latest polls, Mr. Trump stands a fair chance of losing next year.

Nancy Pelosi is a shrewd strategist. She knows that caving to the demands of the left and pursuing Donald Trump’s impeachment could be disastrous for her party. Not only would an impeachment stand almost no chance of actually removing Mr. Trump from office — he would almost surely be acquitted by the Senate — but she can read the polls, too. She knows that independents oppose removing Mr. Trump from office if they could, and opposing by large margins. She understands that Democrats must win a sizable number of those independents to defeat the president and retain their House majority. A divisive impeachment is the surest way to boost the president’s re-election chances, and the speaker knows this. You don’t maintain a majority by pursuing policies that only four voters in 10 support.

In leading the paraphrase of the famous chant, “lock him up,” Mrs. Pelosi has likely blundered. Calling for the president’s imprisonment looks painfully obviously like a desperate attempt to prove her bona fides to a radical base out for blood. It’s not only unlikely to work but it’s based on an error of logic. “Here’s a question for Pelosi,” writes one liberal columnist, “Why not both [impeachment and imprisonment]? It’s not clear why Pelosi believes she has to choose between the two.” It turns out that sometimes you can have your cake and eat it, too. This was not a successful pander.

On a deeper level, as disingenuous as they were, Mrs. Pelosi’s musings are dangerous and lie athwart well-founded tradition. In the United States, until now, no one tries to imprison political opponents. Americans don’t want to jail those they disagree with. Americans debate those with whom they disagree, often fiercely, which is the point of a constitutional republic. Political differences aren’t criminalized. As a presidential candidate in 2016, Mr. Trump was right to criticize Hillary Clinton for her email offenses. But chants of “lock her up” were not to be taken entirely seriously. Surely Nancy Pelosi is not entirely serious about jailing the president without a trial, either.

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