This article appears in the Winter 2018 issue of The American Prospect. Subscribe here.
The Democrats have much to celebrate. They did better than expected in the House, made notable gains in the states, and Donald Trump is on the ropes. House Democrats are primed to launch several investigations, showing the nation what serious governing and legislative comity look like. It’s possible to be both partisan and respectful of democratic norms. George H.W. Bush, object of extended eulogies for his decency, used his veto pen 44 times, a modern record for a one-term president, yet he displayed a courtesy that further shames Trump.
Trump’s moves have increasingly backfired both politically and legally. His efforts to turn a refugee caravan into a national security threat disgusted more voters than they rallied. Hatred failed to galvanize his supporters. The election of 11 minority Democrats in heavily white districts, some deep in Trump country, suggests that the spasm of racism stoked by Trump may have peaked. Black Democrats even flipped seats in the districts of two former GOP House speakers. In Newt Gingrich’s old district in suburban Atlanta, which is just 15 percent African American, Lucy McBath took the seat. Her son, Jordan, had been murdered in cold blood by a white racist for the sin of playing music too loudly. She ran on a platform that included gun control and a Medicare buy-in. West of Chicago, in Denny Hastert’s old exurban district, long a safe Republican seat that is 2.9 percent African American, a 32-year-old black nurse named Lauren Underwood took the seat running as a flat-out progressive.
As the 116th Congress convenes, House Democrats will pick up where Special Counsel Robert Mueller left off, notably the Judiciary Committee under the capable Jerry Nadler and the Intelligence Committee led by Adam Schiff, a former prosecutor. There is already ample evidence, hidden in plain view, that Trump committed several impeachable offenses and even criminal ones. Obstruction of justice, abuse of office, flagrant violations of the emoluments clause, and fraudulent hush-money payments are only part of it. We may well also see tax evasion, money laundering, and criminal violations of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act.
House committees will fill in remaining blanks, as Mueller wraps up his own investigation. Despite the pressure from some quarters to rush directly to impeachment, the House Democrats know they need to assemble an irrefutable case, brick by brick, to win over public sentiment.
Watergate took more than two years. The break-in occurred in June 1972, and Woodward and Bernstein began publishing their investigative pieces in the late summer. Nixon was re-elected in November. Criminal indictments of Nixon henchmen began playing out in Judge John Sirica’s courtroom in the spring of 1973. The Senate Watergate Committee under Sam Ervin began work that May. But then the drama played out for another whole year. Only in May 1974 did the official House impeachment inquiry begin. Because so much evidence had already been assembled, the endgame went quickly. Between July 27 and 29, the House Judiciary Committee voted for three articles of impeachment, for obstruction of justice, abuse of power, and contempt of Congress. On August 5, responding to a unanimous order from the Supreme Court, the White House belatedly released the “smoking gun” tape, detailing the extent of Nixon’s personal involvement in the bungled cover-up. At that, his remaining Republican defenders defected. A House floor vote to impeach was imminent when a delegation led by Barry Goldwater called on Nixon on August 7 to inform him that Senate conviction was assured. Nixon resigned the next day.
Since Mueller has already laid so much groundwork, and because Trump’s abuses of office are so flagrant, the process is likely to be telescoped this time. We could move from committee investigations to a formal impeachment process by summer or fall of 2019. Some, like billionaire, activist, and prospective presidential candidate Tom Steyer, want the House to proceed directly to impeachment. Many others believe that impeachment would be a distraction from an electoral process that increasingly favors Democrats. Better to beat Trump in 2020. The impeachment of Bill Clinton backfired on Republicans in the 1998 midterms, the argument goes, and in any case, the Republican Senate would never convict.
Both views, I think, are wrong. Steyer and company are mistaken, because we need to let the process unfold with all deliberate speed. Public opinion is not there yet, but it will come. Conversely, given the grossly impeachable offenses of President Trump, it would be a dereliction of constitutional duty not to eventually impeach him. And impeachment, if timed properly, could also turn out to be winning politics.
Trump’s abuses are so grotesque, so palpable, and so corrupt that Republican senators will have a hard time condoning them. As Trump is increasingly cornered, he will make more impulsive and authoritarian blunders, adding to the case for his removal. By the time articles of impeachment are voted, at least some Republicans, especially the seven politically vulnerable ones up for re-election in 2020, will feel compelled to seriously consider voting to convict. Even if Trump narrowly avoids removal from office, his will be a ruined presidency and the Republicans will be a fragmented party. That will not be good for their prospects in 2020.
I wish I could end this column here, with the Democrats resurgent and Trump (to evoke another Nixon-era phrase) twisting slowly in the wind. Alas, there is more to the picture.
I HAVE BEEN ARGUING for decades, in this space, in several books, and in other magazine articles, that the lost future of ordinary Americans was seeding the ground for someone like Trump. The loss of a decent economy of broad prosperity is the result not of technology or globalization but of political choices. These reflect the concentrated political and economic sway of financial and corporate elites, and the substantial capture of the presidential wings of both political parties by Wall Street. Barack Obama was as decent and honorable a man as has ever held the presidency, but his financial team epitomized the Wall Street revolving door; the dismantling of regulatory structures that made finance servant rather than master began with Bill Clinton. Both presidents embraced budget balance at times when the economy needed massive public investments. That need is more urgent than ever.
To begin the process of repairing our democracy, our economy, and public confidence in government, Democrats need not only to win, but to win as economic progressives. And that is by no means assured. We are already seeing the kind of destructive infighting that could not only deny the nomination to a pocketbook progressive, but hand the presidency to the Republicans.
At this writing, upwards of 20 Democrats are seriously considering a presidential run, including progressives, centrists, corporate Democrats pursuing makeovers, and charismatics of still vague ideology. During the midterm election, the ideological fault lines were mercifully kept under wraps. The expected tug-of-war between Clinton and Sanders factions did not materialize. The army of volunteers was focused on winning in 2018, not relitigating 2016.
Democratic candidates found a winning formula on the issues—call it kitchen-table economics. Even candidates who considered themselves fairly centrist ran on such issues as defending and expanding Social Security; offering a buy-in to Medicare; cracking down on drug company pricing; dealing with the student debt crisis; and launching a large-scale public infrastructure program. The supposed ideological distance between the party left and center narrowed. Progressive became the new moderate.
But then the factionalism resumed with a vengeance. In one ring of the circus, the aborted revolt against Nancy Pelosi turned out to be largely the work of the small corporate wing of the House Democratic caucus, with help from the great triangulator Mark Penn. Pelosi deserves immense credit for keeping House Democratic candidates on message, rejecting identity politics and campaigning on the kitchen-table issues, as non-radical (but deeply progressive) themes that rally voters and divide Republicans. For about a week, diehard anti-Pelosi members such as Seth Moulton of Massachusetts tried to use progressive Democrats as a front. He described the left-wing Cleveland Representative Marcia Fudge, an African American, as his “mentor” in an effort to persuade her to run for leader. That quickly collapsed as the sheer cynicism sank in.
No sooner did that infighting end than the talented Beto O’Rourke became the subject of a nasty slugfest that reflected deeper divisions. Washington Postcolumnist Elizabeth Bruenig wrote an op-ed opining that Beto wasn’t all that progressive. Center for American Progress (CAP) President Neera Tanden, a close Clinton ally, responded with a ferocious tweet: “Bruenig’s piece in the Poston Beto is just the latest attack by a supporter of Senator Sanders on Beto: joining Jilani [sic], Jacobin and Sirota. Feels a bit orchestrated and clearly they are worried.”
Underlying this spat is the fact that party centrists have no plausible candidate, unless Joe Biden, who will be almost 78 on Election Day, or Hillary Clinton herself gets in. O’Rourke could well be another Obama—very charismatic, but Wall Street safe. Or he could be still a work in progress, increasingly leftish, and a unifier. For now, the CAPcontingent sees him as a bulwark against Bernie redux.
In yet another arena of the Demo-lition Derby, everyone piled on Elizabeth Warren for her DNA/Cherokee misstep. A frenzy of the sort that regularly disgraces the media echo chamber ensued, in which one commentator after another, based on interviews with sources both neutral and self-serving, pronounced Warren’s presidential prospects finished. At this rate of mutually assured destruction, the Democratic field of more than 20 viable contenders could rapidly be winnowed down to none—with the last Democrat standing being far from the best nominee.
THERE IS A PRINCIPLED family quarrel here between the Clinton/Obama center-left and the progressive left. It often gets conflated with two other discussions about moderation and centrism that are the subject of ongoing spin wars. It’s true that voters tend to describe themselves as moderates, but on all the key issues—Social Security, Medicare, education, drug prices, infrastructure—their opinions align with progressives. The genius of the midterm theme was presenting kitchen-table progressive issues not as radical but as common-sense.
Centrism also gets presented as a virtue in the ongoing claim by many pundits (long since demolished by our colleague Jacob Hacker) that American politics suffers from symmetrical extremism. Self-described centrists get depicted as people of rare public purpose. In fact, most turn out to be plain old corporate Democrats. In May, 12 Democratic senators joined Republicans to weaken the Dodd-Frank Act. These included several moderates often praised as seekers of bipartisanship, such as Tim Kaine of Virginia, Tom Carper of Delaware, and Michael Bennet of Colorado. But the reality is less ennobling. Their constituents were hardly clamoring to gut bank regulation. It was more a case of senators doing a favor for big business, on an issue to which most voters were not paying attention. Whatever else ails the Democratic Party, it is not a paucity of corporate senators like Joe Lieberman and Max Baucus. Whoever the eventual nominee, the next administration needs to contain America’s economic royalists, Roosevelt style, to restore the trust of everyone else.
It’s understandable that the Democratic infighting has already begun. But given the stakes, can’t we have some kind of arms-control pact? In Hillary Clinton’s near-miss 2016 campaign against the vulgarian Trump, one of her TV spots had the tagline “Our kids are listening.” As Democrats are on the verge of their quadrennial mutual mash-up, kids are still listening. Grown-ups, too.