The Mistake the Democratic Leadership Can't Stop Making

Photo: J. Scott Applewhite (AP)

This has been a week of monumental shifts for the House Democratic leadership. Just two weeks ago, mere questions about impeachment were infuriating Speaker Nancy Pelosi; after the Ukraine whistleblower scandal broke wide open, however, Pelosi has gone from the usual play of strongly worded letters to finally opening an impeachment inquiry to apparently wanting to narrow the entire impeachment effort down to Ukraine and Ukraine alone.

All of that happened this week. The longest one ever? Not for me to say.

As Washington Post reported Thursday night, the Democratic leadership doesn’t just want to narrow the inquiry down to Ukraine, but apparently wants to also completely fast-track the process. Why? At the request, apparently, of some “vulnerable Democratic freshmen.” Emphasis mine:

Multiple Democratic lawmakers and congressional aides said there is no formal timeline for the inquiry, but the “need for speed,” as one aide put it, comes as Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) is under pressure from vulnerable freshmen to keep the investigation narrowly focused and disciplined.

[...]

Pelosi and other leaders huddled in a basement conference room Thursday evening with more than a dozen “front-liner” members representing the toughest districts for incumbent Democrats to discuss the fledgling probe and, in the words of multiple attendees, “get on the same page.”

Inside the room, the group urged the leadership to keep the messaging around impeachment on national security and the Ukraine probe being led by the House Intelligence Committee and Chairman Adam B. Schiff (D-Calif.) — not on the litany of potential Trump offenses being investigated by other panels, including the House Judiciary Committee, which traditionally takes the lead in impeachment proceedings.

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Some reportedly want to go even further and essentially shut those other committees down while the complaint is investigated:

Some senior Democrats are even arguing that other committees should forgo potentially explosive hearings that could distract from the intelligence panel’s work, complicating other investigative committees’ plans.

“Very few hearings, if any,” said a senior Democratic aide, who said the coming investigative work will largely take place in closed-door interviews. The aide spoke on the condition of anonymity to speak frankly.

If all of this sounds familiar, it’s because a key reason why the Democrats seem to want to move so quickly now appears to be the same reason why they didn’t want to move at all just a few weeks ago: vulnerable freshmen. As the Intercept reported earlier this week:

But there was a bigger problem, Rep. Jamie Raskin, D-Md., told his colleagues that day. Raskin, the highest-ranking progressive on the periphery of leadership, is a constitutional attorney and had long been calling for impeachment on principle. But politics now mattered too, he argued, and the party’s passivity was causing real political pain for rank-and-file members of Congress, particularly those holding back support of impeachment to honor the party leadership’s opposition to it. In order to placate a small handful of front-liners—perhaps as few as seven or eight—the entire party was being dragged down and routinely humiliated by Trump’s contempt for the rule of law.

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This tracks as reasoning for pretty much everything the Democrats have done this year: if an item is going to put vulnerable members in a tight spot, then the party just isn’t going to entertain that at all. Which to a certain extent makes sense: the Democrats have a slim majority as it is, and more than a few of them are skeptical of Pelosi’s leadership.

That doesn’t mean, however, that dictating how a 235-member caucus operates in order to placate the concerns of what appears to be a dozen members or less, many of whom can realistically expect to lose their seats the next time there’s a wave election. Something as big as impeachment—and, I’d argue, healthcare and climate—is too important for the party to be dragged around by the most right-wing members of the caucus. And as the Post notes, those vulnerable moderates don’t even all appear to be on the same page:

A senior Democratic aide familiar with discussions among the party’s moderate wing relayed concerns that a probe seen as moving too rapidly by the public could backfire.

“The stakes are extraordinarily high politically, and if we do this wrong and we get ahead of the majority of Americans, this could actually lead to a much worse fate, which is Trump getting reelected, Democrats lose in the House and lose in the Senate,” the aide said, speaking on the condition of anonymity to speak frankly about private concerns. “This process is going to take time. Nobody knows how long it will take to shift public opinion.”

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There are a laundry list of reasons why Donald Trump should be impeached, the worst of which will unfortunately never be included in articles of impeachment. Slow-walked or fast-tracked, Ukraine-only or an extensive, exhaustive inquiry meant to put forward the strongest possible case for impeachment, the Democrats are only going to get one shot at this. If their every move is dictated by the needs and demands of just a few members (some of whom would just be happy to get four or six years in before they run for a higher or safer office or go work on K Street), then what is the leadership even for?

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