Moderation in the pursuit of justice is no vice?
Photo: Win McNamee/Getty Images
Nancy Pelosi says that the United States is in a “constitutional crisis,” that White House officials have “decided that they are not going to honor their oath of office,” and that Donald Trump is an aspiring autocrat who might well refuse to relinquish the presidency even if he loses next year’s election.
Which is why, in the speaker’s view, Democrats must avoid checking the president’s power too aggressively.
Joe Biden says that Donald Trump represents an unprecedented threat to our republic’s bedrock values — and that, if Trump wins a second term, congressional Republicans will allow their standard-bearer to “forever and fundamentally alter the character of this nation,” not least by destroying “our very democracy.”
Which is why, in the 2020 frontrunner’s opinion, Democrats must neither give up on bipartisanship, nor forfeit their faith in the fundamental decency of congressional Republicans.
Pelosi and Biden’s positions are a bit less absurd than they sound. But they also could not be more antithetical to the consensus view among liberal intellectuals, blue-state back-benchers, and progressive 2020 candidates — which holds that solving our democracy’s present crisis requires waging total war on the Republican president and his party. For this reason, the most divisive question in the Democratic Party today may be, “Do desperate times call for milquetoast measures?”
In ordinary times, Democrats who preach moderation and bipartisanship tend to also endorse a (relatively) sanguine view of the state of the union. In 2016, Bernie Sanders paired his calls for a “political revolution” with lamentations of America’s descent into oligarchy — while Hillary Clinton complemented her more incremental program with the declaration, “America is already great.”
But we live in abnormal times. Robert Mueller’s investigation confirmed that the president of the United States routinely orders his subordinates to subvert the law, believes that the Justice Department should comport itself as his personal detective agency, and is willing to use one of his office’s most extraordinary powers — the authority to pardon convicted criminals — to undermine a federal investigation. Further, while the special counsel declined to recommend obstruction charges against Donald Trump, more than 800 former federal prosecutors have said that the evidence Mueller produced “would have been sufficient to prosecute Trump were he a private citizen.”
Nevertheless, the report’s release did not humble the administration. Quite the contrary. The White House proceeded to recast the fact that Mueller had merely established the Trump campaign’s complicity in Russian efforts to influence the 2016 election (as opposed to the campaign’s participation in a related criminal conspiracy) as both a “total exoneration” of the president and a damning indictment of the Mueller investigation’s very existence. Now, the administration insists that all investigations of its activities constitute “coup” attempts against a duly elected president. Thus, administration officials are refusing to comply with House subpoenas, while Attorney General William Barr has ordered multiple investigations into the origins of the FBI’s Russia investigation.
These events have persuaded Nancy Pelosi that the United States has entered a constitutional crisis. The speaker recognizes that the White House is nullifying Congress’s authority to conduct oversight, and undermining the independence of federal law enforcement. Her diagnosis is extreme. But her prescription remains mild: The speaker has deflected calls within her caucus for impeachment proceedings, and discouraged her colleagues from asserting the House’s statutory authority to fine or jail those who refuse to comply with its subpoenas.
The logic of Pelosi’s position is straightforward: The fact that Donald Trump is a lawless, would-be autocrat makes it absolutely imperative to remove him from office. And since there is an approximately zero percent chance that two thirds of the GOP-controlled Senate will ever vote to evict Trump from the White House, the only viable means of ending his presidency is to defeat him at the ballot box next year.
The question then is whether impeaching Trump — or taking other radical actions to hold him accountable — would increase the Democratic Party’s prospects for defeating him next year. And all available polling suggests that the small fraction of Americans who regularly vote in elections — but have no fixed partisan preference — really hate the idea of impeachment. It is theoretically possible that actual impeachment proceedings could change their minds. But remember: These are voters who have looked at the past three years of widely-publicized, highly-damning information about Donald Trump, and remain unsure about whether they should vote for his reelection. If Trump’s boasts about sexual assault, praise of neo-Nazis, attacks on prisoners of war, and attempts to throw millions of Americans off of health insurance didn’t persuade these people that they should remove him from office through conventional means, why would impeachment proceedings convince them that Democrats should expel Trump through extraordinary ones? After all, the whole saga would inevitably end with the Senate awarding Trump “total exoneration,” thereby signaling to these low-information Americans that the whole impeachment thing had been a partisan crusade.
Meeting fire with fecklessness may feel wrong. But the fate of our republic lies in the hands of a very small, very strange subset of the American electorate. And for God knows what reason, these people despise the very concept of impeachment. Thus, moral courage in this moment requires Democrats to do the right thing, not the satisfying one — and meet Trump’s assaults on the rule of law with calls for infrastructure deals instead of accountability.
Joe Biden claims that Donald Trump’s reelection would irrevocably compromise “the core values of this nation, our standing in the world, our very democracy.” He has likened Republican Voter ID laws to “Jim Crow,” and suggested that the modern GOP is right to regard democracy as its enemy, telling a crowd in South Carolina, “You know what happens when you have an equal right to vote? They lose.”
In other words: Biden ostensibly believes that the Republican Party cannot survive in its current form without disenfranchising nonwhite voters, and is on the cusp of helping its authoritarian leader drive a nail into the coffin of the American republic.
Nevertheless, Biden maintains that Trump is a kind of demon that’s taken possession of the Republican Party; once the “aberration” of his presidency is over, the evil within the GOP will be exorcised, and high-minded bipartisan governance will reign throughout the land.
“What’s happened is, between gerrymandering and unlimited campaign spending, we found ourselves in a position where an awful lot of Republicans have become intimidated by the president,” Biden said in New Hampshire Tuesday. “If you notice, most Republicans — leaders, don’t lose from the left. They lose on the right … I think there is not a middle ground.”
“The thing that will fundamentally change things is with Donald Trump out of the White House — not a joke — you will see an epiphany occur among many of my Republican friends,” the former vice president continued. “And it’s already beginning. In the House now, you’ve seen people that in fact were not willing to vote for any Democratic initiative, even if they agreed with it, because they didn’t want to be the odd person out if it wasn’t going to pass. There’s no sense in getting politically beaten for something that’s not going to happen. But you are seeing the talk, even the dialogue is changing.”
Biden’s narrative doesn’t make sense on its own terms. If gerrymandering and unlimited campaign contributions have left most congressional Republicans unaccountable to anyone save GOP primary voters, then what difference would Trump’s defeat make?
As Biden surely remembers, it wasn’t that long ago that an unpopular Republican president suffered a landslide rebuke at the polls. In 2008, Barack Obama defeated John McCain by 192 votes in the Electoral College, and Democrats gained 8 seats in the Senate and 21 in the House — leaving Team Blue in full command of the federal government. And yet, this shellacking did not awaken the Republican Party to the beauty of bipartisanship and ideological moderation. Instead, the GOP opted for obstructionist nihilism, refusing to support any and all efforts to stimulate the American economy amid the worst recession in a generation. At the time, Republicans insisted that this intransigence was motivated by a sincere belief that the U.S. could not afford to increase its deficit; subsequent events have proven that this was a lie. Sabotage was the point. What was bad for the U.S. economy, Mitch McConnell reasoned, would be good for the party out of power. In 2010, voters proved McConnell right. And the Obama administration responded to the Tea Party wave by turning its focus to deficit reduction, a pivot that would ultimately weaken the economic recovery, and thereby undermine Hillary Clinton’s campaign in 2016.
Donald Trump played no role in any of this. Nor did he have a hand in the nullification of Merrick Garland’s nomination to the Supreme Court, or any of the GOP’s voter suppression efforts at the state level, or its new habit of using its heavily gerrymandered state legislative majorities to strip incoming Democratic governors of their offices’ traditional powers.
It is essentially impossible for the GOP to suffer a worse defeat in 2020 than it did in 2008. Given the current partisan balance in the Senate, there is no way Democrats will secure a filibuster-proof majority next year. It will take a minor miracle for them win control of 50 Senate seats. Barring a sudden turn in the Roberts Court’s jurisprudence, gerrymandering and Citizens United will remain. As will the many structural advantages the GOP derives from being the party of white, rural America in an era of polarized, culture-war politics. The pro-life movement will still believe that the Democratic Party stands for neverending genocide. Trump’s base will still believe that Democrats stand for “open borders” immigration policies that are destroying the America they love. The Koch brothers will still see Social Security as a crime against humanity. Which is to say: The donors and social movements that constitute the GOP will still have every incentive to demand purity and obstruction from their leadership. And that leadership will still have every incentive to answer the challenges posed by demographic change with voter suppression instead of triangulation.
It is possible that Biden actually understands all of this. If so, then his case for moderation in the defense of democracy is similar to Pelosi’s: Precisely because the GOP is irredeemable, it is imperative to pretend that it is not, so as to maximize the Democrats’ chances of expelling Republicans from the White House.
Swing voters like talk of bipartisanship. There are some Republican-leaning independents who dislike Trump but retain some affection for the Republican Party. By insisting that Trump is the cancer — and the GOP, merely his victim — Biden is making it a bit less psychologically threatening for such independents to pull the Democratic lever.
Alternatively, Biden may really believe that defeating Trump will “break the GOP’s fever,” in the same way that a devout — but doubting – zealot believes in God’s mercy. He may see faith in bipartisanship less as a choice than a necessity.
“Let me put it another way,” Biden went on to say in New Hampshire Tuesday. “If we can’t change, we’re in trouble. The nation cannot function without generating consensus. You can’t do it. Because what happens is, if you can’t generate consensus under our system of separated powers, all the power moves to the executive.”
Waiting for Republicans to come to their senses may sound delusional. But given the structure of our government — and all-but-unamendable constitution — there is no alternative.
If one defines Donald Trump’s presidency as the alpha and omega of our democracy’s crisis, then Pelosi and Biden both have reasonable arguments. One can certainly question whether avoiding impeachment at all costs is politically optimal for Democrats. But there is some empirical basis for Pelosi’s view on that score. Meanwhile, appealing to the other party’s soft supporters — by assuring them that their nominee this year is an awful aberration — has long been a best practice of both Democratic and Republican presidential campaigns. So, while one can certainly argue that it would be more electorally expedient for Biden to decry the GOP as a cancer on our body politic, he has some cause for taking the opposite approach.
But, as we just saw, the Pelosi-Biden worldview has no real answer for what happens when Trump leaves, and the crisis persists. Odds are, even in a landslide election, Democrats won’t take the upper chamber next year. Thanks to urban-rural polarization, Republicans enjoy a historic structural advantage in the Senate that is poised to grow in the coming decades. (by 2040, about 70 percent of Americans are expected to live in 15 states.) It’s quite possible that the next Democratic president will not be allowed to appoint federal judges. Thus, even without the White House, the conservative movement could leverage its control of the judiciary, the Senate, and most state governments to block progressive governance (including existentially necessary climate action) at the federal level, while rolling back voting rights in the states.
Recognition of this threat has led progressive intellectuals, and many of Biden’s rivals— including ostensible moderates like Pete Buttigieg — to endorse procedurally radical reforms to democratize the federal government. If Democrats do find a way to eke out a Senate majority in 2021, this contingent argues, they must be prepared to approve statehood for (at least) Washington D.C. and Puerto Rico — not only as a matter of justice, but also for the sake of mitigating the Senate’s underrepresentation of nonwhite (and thus, for now, Democratic) voters. Buttigieg and Elizabeth Warren have also endorsed measures to reform the Supreme Court, so that a conservative majority won’t spend the next three decades standing athwart history yelling stop. Meanwhile, Nancy Pelosi’s caucus has already passed a formidable voting rights bill that would protect the foundations of the republic from conservative assaults.
But none of these reforms will have a prayer unless 50 Democratic senators are willing to vote to abolish the legislative filibuster.
And if the Democratic leadership is too afraid of swing voters to impeach a lawless president — or to cease vouching for the pre-Trump Republican Party’s fundamental decency — how will it ever create a political climate in which Jon Tester feels comfortable violating Senate norms for the sake of mitigating the overrepresentation of his own tiny state?
Tip-toeing around swing voters’ pet peeves may be a sound strategy for winning a single election. But to cure what ails our polity and planet, we’ll need to walk a bolder path.