Passions are high after Donald Trump once again announced that he was happy to receive foreign interference in our elections, so long as that interference helped him, and the heat is back on Nancy Pelosi for her caution on impeachment.
I wrote a column last week defending her, and I meant it then and stand by it now. As I wrote, she has a majority to protect, a lot of members from swing districts, and it’s understandable that her instinct is to think first about that majority.
All her critics are carrying on about her lack of guts. But I don’t think it’s guts she lacks. What she and the Democrats generally lack is imagination—the imagination to think of creative ways to get on offense and put Donald Trump and the Republicans on defense.
Because the Democrats sound defensive. All the time. Think about this. Here we have a president of the United States who has clearly broken the law. And who just casually said he’ll break it again. And we have a party, his, full of people who are ignoring his lawlessness, or worse abetting it. Trump is the one who’s murdering democracy, but all the rest of these people are either holding the body or standing there and watching, amused.
If you watched any cable Thursday morning, you saw some Hill reporters catch some Republicans as they walked down the hall and ask them for comment on Trump’s remarks. None denounced Trump that I saw. Some said I would call the FBI if that happened on my campaign. Others, Joni Ernst of Iowa notably, scurried away. But no one that I saw said anything like: The President is dead wrong, and we can’t tolerate that kind of talk out of a president. And none of them will.
Orwell himself would not dare have scripted House Minority Leader McCarthy Thursday morning. Yes, he himself would call the FBI, but as for Trump: “This president has been tougher on Russia than any president before… The president has gone through this and acted properly all the way… The president does not want foreign governments to interfere in our elections. He’s been very strong about that… I’ve watched the president. I believe the president will always do the right thing.” That’s more than holding the body. That’s handing the perp the knife.
They’re cowards. It shouldn’t be this hard to put cowards on the defensive. But the Democrats can’t do it. Why?
Fundamentally, they fear Republicans. They’ve feared them since the 1990s, when the Republicans, under Newt Gingrich, and with authoritarian propagandists like Rush Limbaugh pushing them along, became something they had never been before: an ideological shock troop.
What the Republicans did to Bill Clinton freaked out Democrats. Pelosi was in the House then, and Jerry Nadler, and Elijah Cummings, and a lot of them. Then came Bush v. Gore, and the Brooks Brothers Riot in Miami-Dade. And then the Iraq war buildup: calling anti-war liberals enemies of freedom, the rhetoric about Democrats secretly loving terrorists. (No, this did not start with Trump by a long shot.)
Around that time, in other reading, I tripped across the phrase “learned helplessness,” which came from some experiments scientists had done in the 1960s. They administered shocks to dogs, and, to make a long story short, they discovered that after a dispiriting number of shocks, some dogs wouldn’t even bother to avoid being shocked even though they could by simply jumping a short barrier.
This is what the shock-troop Republicans did to the Clinton-Bush era Democrats, I wrote once or twice at the time. They taught them learned helplessness.
Since then, things have gotten better. The Democrats are not as lame as their liberal-left critics contend. They fight a lot. They passed some important legislation when Barack Obama was president, and they’ve built up something of a fighting infrastructure.
But they don’t have anywhere near the propaganda network the Republicans have. So they often look like they’re losing. Their saving grace is that public opinion is usually on their side, at least on issues (guns, immigration, minimum wage, etc.), so they sometimes end up winning or at least getting a draw on fights that it looks like they’re losing.
But now, they are back on defense. I don’t want to pick on Pelosi. She’s in a harder position than her reflexive critics realize.
However, read her words from her Thursday morning press conference when she was asked why Trump’s comment to George Stephanopoulos shouldn’t be grounds for impeachment: “Everybody should be totally appalled. However, what we wanna do is have a methodical approach to the path that we are on, and this will be included in that. But not any one issue is going to trigger. It’s about investigating, it’s about litigating, it’s about getting to the truth, because no one is above the law. But I wanna get back to our legislation…”
Then, she mentioned infrastructure. Those aren’t exactly fighting words.
This is what I mean by imagination. Imagine a reality, Democrats, in which you have the power to change things. The Republicans do that all the time. In fact it is all they do.
This, too, goes back to the Bush days. There was a very famous (at the time) quote from an unnamed Bush administration official to journalist Ron Suskind for a New York Times Magazine article in 2004 that Suskind wrote up like this: “The aide said that guys like me were ‘in what we call the reality-based community,’ which he defined as people who ‘believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.’… ‘That's not the way the world really works anymore,’ he continued. ‘We're an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you're studying that reality—judiciously, as you will—we'll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that's how things will sort out. We're history's actors… and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.’”
I don’t want the Democrats to become that unhinged from the empirical world. But they definitely need a dose of that:
Change reality. Change history. Don’t try to control it, from a position of defensiveness.
Here are three things off the top of my head they could do right now:
1. Have a hearing, next week, in which they bring up as many Republican political operatives and campaign officials, and even former Republican elected officials, as they can who will be willing to say to a House committee: “No, the president is wrong. I never have and never would do something like that. I would go directly to the FBI.” Depending on who agreed to do this, this could generate a lot of coverage and ratchet up the pressure on congressional Republicans to say what’s true, or at least make them look worse if they don’t.
2. Those 1,000-plus prosecutors who signed that letter saying Trump obstructed justice? Get a parade of them up there testifying. Especially the Republicans. A lot of Republicans signed that letter, so presumably they’d be willing to get up there and talk. This too could have great PR benefits.
3. Given that a healthy percentage of Americans may not know what’s in the Mueller Report, why not have a week’s worth of hearings simply telling the American people what’s in the report? This is just a matter of skillfully staged theater with the right witnesses. It won’t change the world, but drip drip drip.
There are a dozen other things like this they could do. A quick daily press conference aimed at McConnell. Try to get ex-Trump officials up to testify. Kirstjen Nielsen, who once said she saw “no evidence” the Russians were trying to help the Republicans? Where is she? Experts on foreign interference in our elections. How about five or six of them? Kellyanne Conway won’t leave even after the the Office of Special Counsel recommended removing her Thursday for her repeated violations of the House Act? Don’t move on, hold hearings and spotlight the corruption.
The fate of the republic is literally at stake. Right now. Not tomorrow. Right now. They don’t have to start impeachment hearings tomorrow. But they need to shake off that defensive habit of mind that goes back 20 years and tells their internal gyroscopes, we can’t change this.
Yes, you can. And you must.