Democrats have been twisting themselves into political knots ever since the Mueller Report was released back on April 18th. The Mueller Report did not lead to a massive uprising. Mueller did not ride in like a knight in shining armor and save the Democrats from the messy work of making a case to the American people that Trump is indeed a criminal. Instead, Mueller handed off to Congress indicating that the ball was now in their court, Constitutionally speaking. But instead of quickly and decisively making a case for opening impeachment hearings, we were treated to weeks of half-believable arguments that “we have to wait to see all the facts,” or “the American people are not there yet,” or “we should just wait until 2020 to vote Trump out,” or, “before we can do anything, we have to have Mueller testify.”
However, in his press conference last week, Mueller made is pretty clear that he has nothing more to say and that it is now up to Congress to act on the report’s findings. Since that press conference, an increasing number of House Democrats have called for impeachment hearings to begin. As of this writing, 59 Democrats and a lone Republican, have called for opening an impeachment inquiry. That number does not include House Majority Leader, Nancy Pelosi. Pelosi has been myopically focused on her message that “impeachment will divide the country,” while being overly concerned about shielding Democrats in purple districts from having to talk about impeachment in the lead up to the 2020 election. Despite the growing revolt among House Democrats, the strongest statement Pelosi will make on beginning an impeachment hearing is “nothing is off the table,” a talking point until recently echoed by the Chair of the House Judiciary Committee, Jerry Nadler.
Pelosi faces growing pressure from progressive organizations in addition to members of her own caucus. On Tuesday, more than two dozen progressive groups wrote a letter calling on her to open an impeachment inquiry. According to the Washington Post, the groups told Pelosi that her resistance to impeachment is “resulting in dangerous inaction that enables this racist and xenophobic president.” The letter was signed by some of the progressive organizations that have been responsible for a resurgence of Democratic and progressive activism and deserve partial credit for the historic “Blue Wave” in the 2018 midterm elections: The Women’s March, Indivisible, Working Families Party, CREDO Action, and Democracy for America just to name a few. The letter stated that
As Speaker of the House, you have the power to ensure Congress exercises its constitutional obligation to hold this president accountable, but instead of using your power, you are giving us political excuses for why you shouldn’t. Instead of leading, you and your colleagues have asked us to wait — wait for the Mueller report, wait for the unredacted Mueller report, wait for Mueller’s testimony about the Mueller report, wait for more investigations, wait for bipartisan consensus, wait for impeachment to poll better, wait for the 2020 election.
With 10 distinct episodes of obstruction of justice already clear from the Mueller report, violations of the emouments clause happening on an almost daily basis, and Trump’s administration now defying subpoenas for both documents and testimony, waiting is a privilege. But it is not a privilege available to the families separated by his deportation force or his Muslim ban, the asylum seekers languishing in Mexico, the people threatened by his embrace of white supremacy, the LGBTQ people whose rights he is taking away, the women whose bodies he is trying to control, or the communities threatened by his denial of the climate crisis.
The fact that Pelosi and other members of the Democratic Party leadership have pushed progressive organizations to the point of releasing this public letter, should be a wakeup call. And yet, later Tuesday night in a meeting with top-tier Democrats – many who now are pressuring the Speaker to open impeachment hearings – Pelosi doubled-down on her resistance to impeachment, sources told Politico. While Pelosi refused to budge on impeachment, she told the Democrats assembled “I don’t want to see him impeached, I want to see him in prison!,” according to Politico. If that sentence seems utterly incongruous to you, well, you’re in pretty good company right about now.
Pelosi’s preoccupation with protecting Democrats in purple districts who she assumes are vulnerable risks repeating the mistakes centrist Democrats have made for decades now. She risks alienating the Democratic Party’s progressive base, the very people who will be absolutely essential for victory in 2020. To put it in the words of Sam Seder on the Majority Report last week, “there’s a real cost, it seems to me, for Democrats to NOT impeach Donald Trump, or at the very least, start the process.” The cost will be the cost of turning off the very people you need to win elections; the very people the Democratic party has taken for granted for decades – organized labor, African-Americans, women, and younger voters.
The Democratic Party is facing a reckoning. Nancy Pelosi is not stupid. Nor is she a corporate hack. She has been one of the more consistently liberal members of the Democratic House Caucus for decades. As central Pelosi is to the impeachment question, the issue is ultimately not about her. It’s about a Democratic Party that decided back in the 1990s to hitch its wagon to the emerging suburban, professional class (check out Lily Geismer’s excellent book, Don’t Blame Us: Suburban Liberals and the Transformation of the Democratic Party, for more on this) and abandon its Civil Rights era partnership with organized labor and social movements. The Democrats turned away from “big ideas” and embraced increasingly technical non-partisan incrementalism. The days of that strategy are over.
The “play nice” institutionalists in the Democratic Party are being forced – yes, forced – to confront their bankrupt strategy of incrementalism due to an insurgent generation of progressive politicians and activists such as Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and the Sunrise Movement. Despite the enormous gains made by this insurgent generation, the levers of Democratic Party power are still in the hands of a leadership that remains locked in the 1990s. It is hard to listen to Pelosi and others in party leadership trying to wordsmith their way out of impeachment and exercising their power more generally. Their message to the public and their own base is “we are unwilling to fight for what we say we believe in” or “we don’t really believe what we are saying.” That road that leads to electoral disaster in 2020.