INVESTIGATE OR GOVERN! I have no appetite for making election outcome predictions, but one thing that I foresee with certainty is that if the Democrats win anything tonight, the spin over the next few days will be, to quote the Republican I appeared against on the BBC last night: "If the Democrats want to spend the next two years investigating everything, they can forget any hope of winning the presidency in 2008. If they want to work with President Bush and govern, then there's some hope for them."

This is not just a right-wing talking-point. Said with proper earnestness and attitude of "I only want what's best for the country," it's a good line for everyone from those who stand to go to jail as a result of the investigations all the way to the Broder/Matthews wing of the media, and beyond. I've heard similar sentiments from various Washingtonians of all political stripes.

Investigate or govern. That's your choice, Speaker Pelosi.

And, of course, this is a terrible trap and a false choice. Obviously Pelosi and the Dems will "govern," which is to say they will produce legislation that reflects their stated priorities, they will try to win over Republican votes, they will pass what they can, and perhaps a few things might even get past a presidential veto. But for the most part, their ability to "govern" will be determined entirely by Republican actions. The Republicans are in many ways more effective in opposition, and a determined Republican minority coupled with the White House can easily frustrate the Dems. And then in two years we'll be hearing about how Democrats came to power promising change but accomplished nothing.

And at the same time, obviously Pelosi and the Dems will investigate. There are six years of pent-up demand for serious investigations of everything from pre-war intelligence to misuse of domestic funding programs to the politicization of science and medicine. It would be absolute malpractice not to exercise the oversight power that every Congress before 2002 has used with presidents of their own party and the other party. And there’s no reason that robust investigations and serious governance cannot go on at the same time. Even in the middle of the Watergate investigations and the Iran-Contra investigations, Congress passed serious and significant legislation.

But any attempt to investigate now will be tied up with the issue of impeachment, which is why I was perfectly happy to see Pelosi effectively take impeachment off the table. But it won't go away, and the more malfeasance the investigations turn up, the more they will be treated as merely political steps toward impeachment. And of course, we don't think of impeachment any longer as the solemn bipartisan duty that it was in 1974. Thanks to the Clinton impeachment, it's just another partisan power grab.

But the point of investigations is not impeachment, its not revenge. One point is to restore some basic standards to government, some things that just aren’t done, whether a Republican or a Democrat is in the White House.

The other point of investigations is, of course, to govern. The challenges the next Congress faces are, above all, huge problems that we need to find a way out of. Iraq and the fiscal disaster are the biggest. You can't figure out how to solve huge problems unless you first figure out how you got into them. We've given uninformed policy making a try, and we've seen the results.

I hope some of our side's talking heads knock down the "investigate or govern" spin before it's too late.

--Mark Schmitt

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