How Much Longer Can Pelosi Keep Fiddling While Constitutional Democracy Burns?
What we need now is a Democratic leadership that believes in democracy.
“ . . . I believe in the committee system . . . – Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi
It has been two and a half years since Donald Trump first took his presidential wrecking ball to America’s very flawed system of constitutional democracy.
It has been more than two and a half years since the Justice Department — the FBI, the Special Counsel, lesser federal prosecutors — first began official inquiries into highly questionable aspects of Trump’s election, related to his campaign’s obvious collusion with Russian agents and to his equally obvious efforts to hide this, lie about it, interfere with the investigations, and thus to obstruct justice.
It has been almost six months since Rep. Rashida Tlaib introduced a bill calling for the start of an official House inquiry into whether Trump’s many assaults on the Constitution rise to the level of impeachable offenses that would warrant an official House Bill of Impeachment, and thus a constitutional indictment of this President.
It has been almost three months since the Mueller Report was completed, and almost two months — 63 days as of this writing — since the redacted version of the report was both shared with Congress and made public.
That Trump poses a clear and present danger to constitutional democracy has long been known to every single Democrat holding public office; to virtually all Democratic voters and even the many Never Trump former-Republicans; and to a great many other Americans who have not partaken of the Trump Kool Aid.
That Trump has committed arguably criminal and obviously impeachable offenses has been obvious to any fair-minded reader of the Mueller Report for the past 63 days.
And yet the House Democratic leadership, ruled with an iron whip by Nancy Pelosi, has dithered, delayed, dissimulated, and resisted all calls for decisive action, absurdly and disingenuously claiming that “more” needs to be known; that “normal processes” need to be followed; that Democrats were elected to legislate on “real issues” and not to worry about abstract issues like “impeachment,” i.e., democracy; or that it would be “too divisive” to move forward with impeachment.
In doing so, they have allowed the powerful two-year buildup to the Mueller Report, the expectations associated with its anticipated release, and the real outrages documented in the Report, to fade in the public mind.
They have also allowed Trump, and Barr, their Senate Republican enablers, and their vast publicity machine — a veritable “right wing conspiracy” — to seize the initiative and to control the public narrative about the entire process, turning legal and political liabilities into claims of virtue. Trump continues to lie, obstruct, and accuse his political critics of “attempted coup” and “treason,” and Barr continues to escalate his investigation of the investigators. The Trump administration is currently undertaking a public relations offensive against the Democrats, centering on the claim that it is the Democrats who “colluded” — with hostile foreigners in possession of a phony “Steele Dossier and with journalistic “enemies of the people” peddling “Fake News” — to frustrate “the will of the people” by “taking down” Trump.
Vox Populi, Vox Dei, Vox Donald.
Meanwhile Pelosi continues to dither, obstructing increasing numbers of her own caucus who support the Tlaib resolution, apparently including Judiciary Committee Chair Jerry Nadler; speaking out of both sides of her mouth (“Trump is a criminal and a danger to democracy but we must legislate and do infrastructure with him”; “Trump might not even give up office if electorally defeated in 2020, but we cannot rush to impeach him, and we must pin our hopes on the 2020 elections”); and in the process confusing the public and squandering real opportunities to take the offensive by taking the Constitution seriously and making a real issue of Trump’s political criminality.
In the past couple of days Trump has gone even further, declaring in a nationally televised interview that he would do again what he did in 2016, the law be damned. Pelosi’s response: insisting again that impeachment is neither on nor off the table — does she realize how alienating this kind of politico bullshit such talk is? — and that “we will have to see” what happens.
A recent Rolling Stone piece by Ryan Bort documents the repertoire of excuses for avoiding impeachment on which Pelosi has drawn. Some harsh centrist critics of Trump, such as the Washington Post’s Jennifer Rubin, credit Pelosi for her savvy, claiming that her patient and “long game” approach is exposing Trump’s weaknesses. But I think the opposite is true. The longer this drags on, the longer Trump will be emboldened; the more difficult it will be for Democrats to ever recapture the attention of the broad public or to build any momentum to impeach; and the more difficult it will be to hold Trump to account, constitutionally or electorally, for his malfeasance.
Last Tuesday, in response to questioning on CNN, Pelosi stood by her guns. This is what she said in defense of her patience:
I think the Mueller report very clearly spells out, at least 10 or 11 instances of obstruction of justice. But I’m not here to have that discussion. That’s for the committees. We have six committees that work on this. One doing taxes, Ways and Means Committee. Maxine Waters, Financial Services, Jerry Nadler, Judiciary. Elijah Cummings, the Government Oversight Committee. Eliot Engel, Foreign Affairs Committee. They’re all doing their work very well, and I believe in the committee system, and it will bubble up from there.
I watched as Pelosi haltingly recited this mind-numbing list of committees on TV. Pelosi seemed to have a hard time getting it all straight herself. Can she really imagine that viewers of CNN news shows, much less the broader public not tuned in to CNN, can follow the six committees and the six chairs and the ten or eleven legalistic instances of malfeasance to which she refers? She may believe in the committee system. She may believe that “it will bubble up from there.” But it is more likely that “it,” whatever “it” is, will remain stuck “there,” in the six separate committees, as key witnesses refuse to testify, and the administration refuses to comply with requests for or subpoenas of information, and fewer and fewer people continue to pay attention. Holding an array of committee hearings that proceed under the public radar and involve testimony from people like John Dean will not do the trick.
Meanwhile Trump will continue to denounce the Democrats and to incite his base. And instead of looking “reasonable,” Democrats will look feckless and incompetent and all of the attention focused on the Mueller investigation for the past two years will look more and more like a “hoax,” since nothing is being done about it by the Democrats who have long made it an issue.
Pelosi may hope that fading public attention to the issue might benefit House Democrats in the 2020 election, by allowing her caucus members to campaign on “real issues” without having to take a “controversial stance” on impeachment. But it is not likely that attention to the issue will fade. What will fade is attention to Trump’s malfeasance . And what will remain vivid, and in plain sight, is Trump himself, in all of his malevolent malefaction, bullying from his pulpit and denouncing his opponents for lacking the guts to put up or shut up. How is that a compelling approach to constitutional responsibility or electoral victory in 2020?
Every day that passes makes clearer that there is no avoiding a fundamental decision: either Trump’s malfeasance will be the dominant issue, or Congressional Democratic malfeasance will be the issue. Either Trump’s war on the Constitution will be challenged by House Democrats serious about discharging their constitutional duties, or the failure of House Democrats to discharge their constitutional duties will be twisted by Trump to disparage and to politically weaken them.
To be sure, Pelosi and her leadership team now bear an immense burden of responsibility. For they are facing a President with no regard for the law, and confront a real constitutional crisis. If the House moves toward impeachment, then we can be certain that Trump will continue to obstruct the process at every turn, making it difficult for an impeachment investigation to obtain information or call relevant witnesses and defying House Democratic leaders to seek redress in the Courts, a time-consuming and enervating process that might well result in decisions that reinforce Trump’s claims of “executive privilege.” Then what? There are enormous uncertainties, and risks, in this. And even if an impeachment investigation “succeeds” in bringing articles of impeachment against the president, Senate Republicans will kill the effort. Democrats know this going in, and must be prepared for the rhetorical battle to define the “meaning” of a process that will not remove Trump from office. They must be prepared to stand fast on the claim that Trump is a danger to democracy, that they can demonstrate this effectively, and that it is the Republicans who must take the political heat for their obstruction of political justice. And that is a real challenge.
On the other hand, if the Mueller Report is allowed to fade into oblivion, and Trump is allowed to continue to collude, to obstruct, and to debase the rule of law with impunity, then there is no telling where this will lead. It will surely embolden Trump, destroy any notion of Congressional oversight, and likely expose the cravenness and weakness of the Democrats and alienate many actual and potential Democratic base voters.
To let Trump’s malfeasance slide, in the hope that electoral victory in 2020 will render it moot, is a dereliction of constitutional duty and of political responsibility. Trump is genuinely and legitimately vulnerable now, and if the Democrats are to be serious about defeating him and his party in 2020, then they need to seize the moment now.
This requires decisive political leadership and a willingness to take the risks because politics as usual has greater risks.
At the same time, this is a kind of political leadership that Pelosi and her minions might simply be incapable of providing. Pelosi may be a brilliant legislative tactician. But she is entirely a creature of the House of Representatives. Pelosi herself has never stood for a national or even a statewide election. In her 34th year as a U.S. Representative, she has run, seventeen times, only in California’s 5th Congressional District which, having been held by Democrats since 1949, is one of the safest Democratic districts in the country. She can hardly claim to have faced serious ideological challenges in her pursuit of public office, nor can she claim to have her finger on the pulse of the nation at large in an electoral sense. In addition, her power as Speaker of the House centers on her control of the Democratic Caucus, which consists of 235 individuals, each of whom can claim to represent only a very small, geographically-based constituency. The most generous interpretation of Pelosi’s stubbornness about impeachment is that she is preoccupied with retaining Democratic control of the House, which means tending to the perceived electoral needs of those caucus members who hold vulnerable seats in contested Congressional districts, and are thus most likely to be very cautious when it comes to putting themselves out on a political limb. The U.S. political system is not a parliamentary democracy, and Pelosi has no claim to be a national leader of her party or to have a national electoral mandate. Before serving as Speaker, she served, briefly, as the Democratic Whip. She is an expert head-counter, not a real leader. And so her narrowness of vision makes some sense, shaped as it is by the only political institution in which she has ever served.
Democratic presidential candidates, by contrast, have their eyes on the prize of a national election. They need to project a broad vision. And they cannot avoid the fact that they aim to run against Trump. It thus makes sense that virtually every important contender who is not the named-recognized and time-serving Joe Biden — Warren, Sanders, Harris, Buttigieg, Klobuchar, Gillebrand, O’Rourke — has called for impeachment.
The Democratic Party now faces a number of serious challenges. There is tension between the narrow strategic calculus of Pelosi and the broader electoral strategy required to retake the Presidency in 2020. There is tension between the party’s aging and hidebound Congressionally-based leadership — Pelosi, Schumer, Hoyer, etc. — and a newer generation of young and dynamic leaders, symbolized by AOC, not wedded to “business as usual” and seeking to move the party forward, pressing new issues and mobilizing new voters. And there is tension between the party’s long-standing centrist policy commitments, and the development of a new left promoting social democratic and “democratic socialist” policy ideas and a Green New Deal.
All of these tensions are being worked out in the face of Trump, the dangers he poses now, and the even greater dangers a second term of his presidency would pose. These dangers represent a real challenge, but also a real opportunity. Now. Trump colluded and obstructed, and for two years Mueller investigated, while news stories regularly broke about Trump’s malfeasance and the expectations of a “reckoning” built, and the Mueller Report is now public knowledge. Impeachment is on the agenda, and too much is at stake for Democrats to temporize for the next 16 months, in the hope that the November 2020 election will return things to “normal.”
This also means that while the contenders for the Democratic presidential nomination can help to shape the agenda for 2020 and beyond, right now all eyes rest on the House of Representatives, which alone can take appropriate action to call this awful president to account and to put his Republican enablers on the spot to either break with their poisonous president or explain their contempt for constitutional democracy and the rule of law.
And so all eyes rest on Nancy Pelosi.
Will she rise to the occasion?
How much longer can she afford to keep fiddling while our constitutional democracy burns?
She says she “believes in the committee system.”
What we need now is a Democratic leadership that believes in democracy.
Jeffrey Isaac is James H. Rudy Professor of Political Science at Indiana University, Bloomington. He is the author of #AgainstTrump: Notes from Year One, now available from Public Seminar Books/OR Books. You can talk to him about this essay on Facebook.