“It is almost always the cover-up rather than the event that causes trouble.” — Senate Watergate Committee Ranking Minority Member Howard Baker
“We believe that no one is above the law, including the president of the United States. And we believe that the president of the United States is engaged in a cover-up.” — Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi
Nancy Pelosi may be a polarizing figure, but trotting out the word “cover-up” shows again that she’s one smart cookie who has been in and around politics for a long time. The Speaker learned the art at the knee of her father, a Congressman and later Mayor of Baltimore. She was a Congressional intern in the 1960s. And after moving to the Golden State, she became a protégé of the legendary legislative tactician Rep. Phil Burton, whose seat she eventually inherited.
The much-maligned San Francisco Democrat is no slouch as a strategist herself, and is master of the long game. The first time she held the gavel, the Speaker willingly sacrificed her House majority, and her own glass-ceiling-shattering position, to ram through legislation that upended the relationship between government and governed forever. All it did was hook upward of 20 million voters onto Medicaid and federally subsidized health care, provide the issue that propelled her back into the Speaker’s chair and put America on an inexorable trajectory toward single-payer.
And since November, all Dona Pelosi has done is quietly and efficiently shiv the opposition to her continued leadership of her caucus — despite 58 Democratic incumbents and candidates having pledged to vote against her as Speaker — followed by her unquestioned triumph in staring down and schooling The Donald as she shut down his government shutdown.
So when the Speaker uses a word, you’d think it is with careful consideration and strategic forethought. And you would be right.
With her “cover-up” declaration, she neatly abbreviated the Democrats’ pathetically weak case against President Trump — for alleged obstruction of justice — into a simple, powerful and highly loaded word. A game plan in seven letters, really.
Because that word arouses an instant association: with Richard Nixon and Watergate. As in “the cover up was worse than the crime” — the popular watchword for the scandal into which Senator Baker’s quote was ultimately condensed.
And the Speaker surely also knows that although “Tricky Dick” was never actually impeached — he resigned before the full House could act — many voters link that concept with him and Watergate as well.
Yet the crafty veteran also understands that the politics around impeachment have evolved. She had a front-row seat as voters punished House Republicans for impeaching Bill Clinton over “lying about sex.” And she therefore recognizes the potential damage if her party strings up Trump for legitimately exercising his presidential powers in the face of a strung-out, overwrought and over-reported investigation of imaginary “collusion.”
Accordingly, behind Madame Pelosi’s deployment of the “C” word, shortly after trial-ballooning a double-C term also tied to Nixon’s fall — “constitutional crisis” — is an alternative approach. Her calculated rhetoric tips the spear of a full-out war of attrition by House Democrats — which in the wake of the Special Counsel investigation’s roughly 500 witness interviews and 3,500 subpoenas and warrants, now consists of more than 20 committee probes with hundreds of subpoenas of Trump, current and former aides, and his businesses.
The goal: gain the benefits of impeachment by rhetorically making the case for it, and generating the associated distractions, without actually following through, while keeping the President on the defensive and preventing any further substantive gains. And most important, driving up his personal negatives in hopes that they will in 2020 overwhelm a record of solid accomplishment and promises kept.
Will the Speaker’s shrewd strategy in two syllables work? Much depends on the President’s response. Usually, his smash-mouth counterpunching leaves opponents wondering what hit them. But Ms. Pelosi once again slipped his errant blows to win another round: Trump’s storming out of their scheduled meeting on infrastructure both made him look puerile and petulant and deprived him of his only issue where he could make headway with a Democratic House.
No, a front assault on this Speaker — especially labeling her “Crazy Nancy” — won’t carry the day. Rather, the President must keep going straight to the American people with a next-stage vision that meets pressing needs. It must extend beyond his admittedly prodigious domestic and diplomatic gains — which have already been “priced-in” to the public’s view of him. And like his regulatory reform efforts, it must be capable of implementation with or without the Democrats — echoing Sleek Barry Obama’s “pen-and-phone” declaration.
As Jean Arthur allowed to Jimmy Stewart as he filibustered the Taylor machine in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, “It’s a 40-foot dive into a tub of water.” But that’s been the nature of the quixotic crusade against the capital’s elites that began with the fateful ride down Trump Tower’s escalator.
Nancy Pelosi’s deft deployment of code words is demonstrating that she’s as politically elite as they come. To maintain his momentum and survive next year, Trump will need to raise his own game above mere “fili-blustering.”
Bob Maistros is a messaging and communications strategist, crisis specialist and former political speechwriter. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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