Democratic Leaders Must Stop Retreating and Embrace the Party’s Nature

Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi are wrong to tell Democrats to shut up about impeachment.

Their attitude reflects the kind of appeasing, poll-driven, compromising type of Democratic politics that has kept the party in a constant state of defensiveness and ideological retreat for over 30 years.

That’s not to say, as some would have it, that appeasement, following polls and compromise are always a mistake. It must be admitted that what victories and policy gains Democrats have achieved since the 80s have largely been the result of a centrist approach that has at times included these tactics. The belligerence of the party’s extreme Left has achieved very little in terms of elections or policy.

However, what the Left has done more successfully is shape public opinion. Many of the issues Reid and Pelosi would rather talk about than impeachment, like income inequality, are significant issues in the public mind because activists have made them so. And the Left is right that the centrist, poll-driven approach often comes at the price of undermining their efforts in this regard.

Worse than that, the centrist strategy of retreating to safe political ground often undermines the overall credibility and strength of the party in numerous ways both in the long run and sometimes even in the short run. It also closes the door, perhaps unnecessarily, to larger progressive gains. It is the approach that led the Democratic Party to largely abandon red state and rural areas to focus on urban areas. The idea was that Democrats could more easily win elections by focusing limited resources on the urban areas where they were strong rather than waste resources on places they would lose no matter what they did. To some extent that was true, but focusing only on those areas allowed conservatives to consolidate power everywhere else, freeing up their resources to fight Democrats where they were strong. Additionally, they were able to push rural areas ever further to the right and in time engineer a takeover of large numbers of state governments by ever more conservative people, who in turn used their power to gerrymander districts and give their party more power at the national level.

Reid and Pelosi’s statements on impeachment are the rhetorical version of this same focus-on-our-strengths strategy. They are suggesting that Democrats avoid issues where they’re weak and focus on issues where they are strong. And while choosing to focus more on winning issues rather than losers makes logical sense on the surface, avoiding the subjects Democrats don’t poll well on entirely cedes those subjects to the Republicans, which allows them to focus on trying to find ways to undermine the Democratic Party’s strength on other issues. It can also have unpredictable political side effects just as ceding the rural areas had unpredictable effects on national politics. Specifically, this strategy ignores the implied negative messages such avoidance of an issue sends to the electorate.

Anytime you back away from an issue, many people interpret that as an admission that you don’t have confidence in it or even that you may know you’re in the wrong. Pelosi and Reid are therefore inadvertently conceding that Trump is right and that the Russia story is fake news by saying Democrats shouldn’t talk about it. We see the effect of this in poll numbers showing more people turning against the Mueller investigation. That concession also in turn implies that any Democrat talking about impeachment is just playing politics rather than discussing a serious issue. That undermines the overall credibility of those Democrats, which includes the leadership of the Democratic National Committee given that the DNC has recently filed a lawsuit alleging potentially impeachable crimes by the President. And undermining the credibility of a significant group of Democrats undermines all.

It’s fine for Reid and Pelosi to disagree with impeachment or doubt the case for it, but there are ways of doing that without being disrespectful of the opposite opinion or telling people to shut up. It’s fine for any leader in the party to have their own opinion about any subject, but there is an affirmative obligation to be respectful of the opposing view when that view is widely held within the party and your view is the one widely held by the Republicans. We have conservative news outlets actively trying to shut down any discussion of the subject and GOP congress people trying to shut down any investigation of it. Democrats who think the subject has merit understandably wonder whose side their leaders are on when they see them join the Republicans in trying to stop discussion of the subject.

At the same time, silence convinces no one that Democrats won’t bring the government to a halt with subpoenas, investigations and possibly impeachment if they win. That’s the fear Republicans are now trying to exploit. They’re also playing on the sense of economic well-being people currently feel to suggest that maybe that won’t continue if Trump is gone. The way to counter that is to respond to those arguments. Show a commitment to due process, fairness and nonpartisanship in investigations and a commitment to a functioning government. Point out that this recovery is a continuation of Obama’s and that the economy’s trend lines have simply stayed on the same course they were already on. Point out that a downturn IS likely coming because of the business cycle and Trump policies and that the GOP is making it harder to respond to that. You can’t make any of those point by avoiding the subject.

What Pelosi and Reid hope, of course, is that not talking about the issue will keep it from being used to rally the GOP base. Meanwhile, they’re unconcerned that shelving the issue might dampen enthusiasm among people who see impeachment as important because there are a lot of other issues with which to rally those voters. But why should those enthusiastic voters think that Democrats won’t set these other issues aside too if at some point they become something that might rally the Republican base or if these issues stop polling well? The crimes that have been alleged both in regards to Trump and his administration touch on issues of morality, legality, national sovereignty, corruption and the founding principles of the country. If Democrats are willing to set that aside then why not anything else? Backing away from holding the Trump administration accountable for massive corruption and possible collusion with a foreign power — which is what the impeachment issue is all about — suggests that Democrats are willing to compromise core values to obtain power, which suggests to voters that the Democrats may be corrupt or corruptible even if they really are not.

Telling Democrats to shut up about impeachment or any other issue because it isn’t polling well sends the message that the only real value Democratic Party leaders believe in is their duty to represent the views of the majority. That is, to be fair, part of what a politician in a Democracy is expected to do. But voters are also looking for leadership — particularly on issues where they are uncertain or divided. Following the view of the majority is not leadership. In fact, if the Democratic Party seeks always to follow public opinion rather than try to shape it, then ultimately Democrats will find themselves always following the GOP because Republicans WILL and DO seek to shape public opinion and they for certain will succeed if Democrats don’t respond.

And then the polls party leaders look to for guidance will show that they need to shut up about another issue and another and another. That’s why shutting up about an issue is really a policy of retreat. And frequent retreating suggests that Democrats are weak and therefore supporting them is pointless. When you back down anytime the argument gets difficult people will eventually have no confidence in your commitment or ability to fight for their values or interests even if they are aligned.

The lack of concern for the enthusiasm of potential Democratic voters is a case of counting chickens before they are hatched. Hillary Clinton thought she had enough enthusiastic voters too and the polls told her she did, but then many didn’t show up on election day because they decided that it didn’t matter who won. Party leaders need to make sure they’re not giving voters reason to believe that again.

The fact is, it’s irresponsible to take impeachment off the table at this point when we don’t yet know the full story of what happened with the 2016 campaign. It will truly hurt the Democratic Party’s credibility in the future if we leave conservative voters with the impression that we won’t impeach and then turn around and impeach Trump after the election because we find new evidence of crimes committed too damning to ignore. Impeachment is a fundamental duty of Congress if the President is found to be committing crimes that seriously affect the business of the country. It’s fair for Democratic politicians to say that we don’t have enough evidence of such crimes as yet to warrant such an action, but taking it off the table completely now just shows political weakness.

Talking about issues when we don’t have majority support is unquestionably tricky, but it is also part of showing we have integrity. People will respect someone they disagree with who is open and honest about that disagreement. They don’t respect people who are evasive about it. Ultimately the big issues floating around the electorate cannot be avoided, especially if the opposition intends to make a big deal out of them. Impeachment is the elephant in the room and Republicans are already harping on it. Avoiding it is going to be impossible.

Democrats must have a response that defends against the issue. The implication of the Republican argument against Democratic oversight of the administration is that Democrats will be partisan and unfair. Avoiding the subject concedes that argument because it leaves it unanswered. In reality, it is Republicans who have time and time again conducted clearly partisan investigations that shut Democrats out in various ways. The exclusion of Democrats from a recent meeting with the justice department is just the latest example.

The party should tout its belief in due process as a core tenant and its own history of investigations that were non-partisan as proof that Democrats should be trusted more than Republicans with investigative oversight. It should also be made clear that Republicans will have full and equal participation in such investigations, something Republicans have routinely denied to Democrats. It must be clearly stated, out loud, that just because Republicans have been unfair and partisan in their investigations doesn’t mean Democrats will be. We must stop accepting the GOP characterization of who we are as people.

If we can convince the public on fairness, we can in turn more effectively run on our willingness to hold government officials accountable for corruption and mismanagement in a way that Republicans clearly refuse to do when the administration is Republican. The fact that independents oppose impeachment doesn’t mean that they don’t care about issues of government corruption. It just means that they fear the disruption to the country that impeachment might impose and the gridlock that investigations might bring. The way to counter such fears is to thoroughly discuss them and assure people that the Democrats will do what’s best for the country, which includes holding government officials accountable, but also includes weighing the disruption impeachment might involve in determining how to proceed.

This is an opportunity for politicians to start a discussion with their constituents about when they believe impeachment is appropriate and when it isn’t. What does the constitution say and what did the founders say about it? Get the public involved in the conversation about when and under what circumstances a president should be impeached — and whether any of the potential accusations surrounding the Trump campaign meet the bar for impeachment. Who knows where such a conversation might lead the public, but leading such a conversation will show that Democrats are considering the questions seriously and responsibly. It will also turn the conversation away from the fears around impeachment toward a conversation about how people would like the country to work. That a good conversation for Democrats.

Moderate Democrats like Reid and Pelosi have long supported a “big tent” approach to the party that is inclusive of people with a wide range of views as a way to maximize the number of Democratic voters. They have rightly pushed back on attempts by more Leftist party members to demand ideological purity of Democratic politicians. But that makes it hugely hypocritical for moderates to demand adherence to a particular view on a subject like impeachment. We should not be afraid of differences of opinion within the party. Unity is important, but having multiple viewpoints in the party gives voters who may disagree with popular viewpoints within the party assurance that Democratic rule will not completely ignore their opinion on those subjects. On issues like impeachment where the public might be divided, having politicians in the party who take the opposite point of view on the subjects lends credence to the notion that Democrats are the party that will represent the public most fairly instead of representing only one side as the Republicans will do. Our diversity is our strength.

Constantly demanding retreat on Leftist issues that don’t poll well is unfair to left leaning constituencies within the party, undermines the big tent strategy, destroys the credibility of Democratic politicians as leaders, and calls into question the ability of the party to represent any constituency in anything other than the most ideal of political circumstances. An alternative to this retreat is to embrace the disagreement and use it as a sign of the party’s commitment to the core value of fairness and Democratic representation of all views. Leaders should demand that disagreement be respectful and not devolve into personal attacks, but they should not stifle discussion. Let the disagreements play out as that is what Democracy is all about. To put it more simply, the best strategy for Democrats is to always to BE Democrats.