Are House Democrats pursuing impeachment or not? Jerrold Nadler sloughed off the question as mere “nomenclature” as he expanded the rules for the House Judiciary Committee’s investigations into Donald Trump. Nadler still couldn’t give a straight answer to the question, however, and neither could anyone else in the House Democrat caucus:

Thursday’s vote, which does not need to be approved by the full House, gives Nadler the ability to deem committee hearings as impeachment hearings. It allows staff to question witnesses at those hearings for an hour after members conclude, gives the President’s lawyers the ability to respond in writing to public testimony and allows the committee to collect information in a closed setting.

But the dissonant messages over the probe have prompted frustration among rank-and-file members, particularly those in competitive races wary of impeachment, and it even led to the House’s No. 2 Democrat walking back his statement on the committee’s investigation on Wednesday. …

“This Committee is engaged in an investigation that will allow us to determine whether to recommend articles of impeachment with respect to President Trump. Some call this process an impeachment inquiry. Some call it an impeachment investigation. There is no legal difference between these terms, and I no longer care to argue about the nomenclature,” the New York Democrat said. “But let me clear up any remaining doubt: The conduct under investigation poses a threat to our democracy. We have an obligation to respond to this threat. And we are doing so.”

Search for hours in that statement and you still won’t find an answer in that question. Ranking member Doug Collins offered one up, however, in response to the rule changes. The Judiciary chair, Collins said, was living on “Fantasy Island,” and the rules changes don’t mean anything:

But Rep. Doug Collins of Georgia, the committee’s top Republican, said the resolution doesn’t give the committee any more authority than it already had, and the full House has to vote before there are impeachment investigations.

Collins described the Democrats’ strategy as “Fantasy Island,” going down a yellow brick road like in “The Wizard of Oz,” and like “a giant Instagram filter: To make it appear that something is happening when it’s not.”

“We’re not in an impeachment inquiry,” Collins said at one point, as he banged the dais in front of him with the side of his hand.

Don’t forget that the House had an opportunity to authorize a formal impeachment inquiry this summer. Rep. Al Green (D-TX) used a privileged motion mechanism to force a full floor vote by the House, which failed by a 95-332 vote. Nevertheless, Nadler has been trying to sell Judiciary’s investigations as “formal impeachment proceedings,” which the House explicitly rejected and his own party’s leadership keeps dodging.

CNN’s Manu Raju tried to get Nadler to explain that, but Nadler waved him off after the hearing:

At least that much is clear — no one wants to answer it. Why? Because Democrats are trying to mollify their progressive base by going through the motions on impeachment while putting off their moderates and suburban voters by telling them they aren’t conducting an impeachment inquiry. They’re talking out of both sides of their mouths and aren’t happy to be called out for it, as Judiciary member and caucus leader Hakeem Jeffries told the New York Times yesterday:

“I don’t want to get caught in semantics. We all agree, from Speaker Pelosi through every single member of the House Democratic Caucus, that we have a constitutional responsibility to hold an out-of-control executive accountable,” said Representative Hakeem Jeffries of New York, the leader of the Democratic caucus who also sits on the Judiciary Committee. “That’s what six committees are doing — not simply the Judiciary Committee — and the committees should be allowed to do their work without getting involved in semantical distinctions.”

That’s pretty tough to avoid when Nadler and others use the “semantics” of impeachment to expand their authority, even nominally, as happened today. It’s not a semantic argument anyway, but a political and legal issue. If Democrats want to pursue impeachment, then the full House needs to authorize it — or else explain to their voters why they aren’t going to do it.

Former Barack Obama adviser Dan Pfeiffer put it plainly yesterday:

To which another Obama adviser scored an even better point:

The general election is now less than fourteen months away. The clock is running out on impeachment, and in fact may have already on the grounds being pursued by House committees. Without “Russia collusion,” Trump’s win in 2016 was legitimate and removal would be illegitimate. The latter will go nowhere in the Senate anyway. At some point, voters are going to assume that Democrats literally have nothing else to offer except anti-Trump paranoia and rethink their 2020 choices in that context.

After all, when you’ve lost MSNBC — and apparently literally lost them …