A profile of Nancy Pelosi in the New York Times appeared over the weekend which outlines her “coldblooded plan” for leading the Democratic Party, defeating Trump and forging a new path forward. The plan is cynical and cowardly. I likewise suspect it will ultimately lead to failure, either at the polls in 2020 or, barring that, in a toothless, uninspiring Democratic presidency should whoever is nominated adopt her thinking and win the election.
The most striking part of it is just how strongly Pelosi is leaning into fear as a justification for an unambitious Democratic candidate and platform:
Speaker Nancy Pelosi does not believe President Trump can be removed through impeachment — the only way to do it, she said this week, is to defeat him in 2020 by a margin so “big” he cannot challenge the legitimacy of a Democratic victory.
That is something she worries about.
“We have to inoculate against that, we have to be prepared for that,” Ms. Pelosi said during an interview at the Capitol on Wednesday as she discussed her concern that Mr. Trump would not give up power voluntarily if he lost re-election by a slim margin next year.
Can we acknowledge how remarkable this is? Not the part in which the leader of the opposition party is saying, in public, that she legitimately thinks the President of the United States of America is planning a literal coup, because hell, I wouldn’t put that past Trump at this point. No, the remarkable part is that her response is to to try to “inoculate” against that in political terms by hoping for a rare-in-this-age landslide election.
I would like to think that, in addition to just hoping such a thing doesn’t happen, she has used the considerable powers and resources at her disposal to begin to forge some sort of legal, institutional plan rooted in her status as he most powerful member of a co-equal branch of government to prepare for such an unprecedented act and to warn Trump against even considering it. If so, I feel like it’d be best for her to give it voice. Trump’s casting aside of the rule of law these past few years has been a very public exercise in which he has always tested the waters via tweets and ideas floated via media surrogates, forging ahead with his lawlessness once he realizes that no one will effectively push back. As such, If Pelosi legitimately fears Trump will usurp power after losing an election, maybe it’d be a good idea to warn him against it now in terms that he will fully understand.
Let us also acknowledge that all of this talk of a coup, couched in an article in which she talks about her well-known issues with the left wing of her party, not so subtly lays the groundwork for her to place the theoretical blame for such a coup on that left wing rather than, you know, the guy she thinks is going to stage the coup. “If young Democrats get their way we’ll tack too far to the left and create Generalissimo Trump!” Pelosi is clearly arguing. I’ll grant that we live in a scary age, but so blatantly basing her political strategy on fears like that, and so cynically saying that those most vocally opposed to Trump would be responsible for it all, is pathetic, especially for a figure of Pelosi’s stature.
Short of worrying about a coup, Pelosi is worrying about how Republicans will react if Democrats offer anything in the way of ambition when it comes to policy or make efforts to hold Trump or Republicans to account in any real way:
[Pelosi] offered Democrats her “coldblooded” plan for decisively ridding themselves of Mr. Trump: Do not get dragged into a protracted impeachment bid that will ultimately get crushed in the Republican-controlled Senate, and do not risk alienating the moderate voters who flocked to the party in 2018 by drifting too far to the left.
“Our passions were for health care, bigger paychecks, cleaner government — a simple message,” Ms. Pelosi said of the 40-seat Democratic pickup last year that resulted in her second ascent to the speakership. “We did not engage in some of the other exuberances that exist in our party” — a reference to some of the most ambitious plans advocated by the left wing of her party and some 2020 candidates, including “Medicare for all” and the Green New Deal, which she has declined to support.
While reasonable people can disagree on the wisdom of impeachment, Pelosi’s comments later in the article about how it’s convenient to be able to attack Attorney General Bill Barr rather than go directly after Trump, reveal just how afraid she is to get into any sort of confrontation with him. She has thus far shown no willingness to take even moderately aggressive efforts to investigate him or hold him to account in the wake of the Mueller Report or any of the numerous ethics scandals which have infested Trump’s presidency. She seems to embody the concern, voiced fairly often these days, that it’s best to avoid doing anything to draw Trump’s ire or motivate the Republican media machine which would take shrill, hysterical aim at Democrats.
Nowhere in here, however, does Pelosi appear to acknowledge that Democrats could do nothing more provocative than cut ribbons at veterans hospitals and host the annual Easter egg hunt and Republicans and their surrogates in the media would still accuse them of being radical Stalinists hellbent on destroying America. Nowhere does she acknowledge that there is no act or policy position that Democrats could adopt that Trump will not rant and lie about and distort into something horrifying with the Fox News brigade throwing gasoline on the fire. He and they have done it countless times before and they will, with 100% assurance, do it again.
It is utterly pointless, then, to take a hands-off approach to Trump and Republicans, let alone to make that the lodestar of your political philosophy. Even if impeachment is a non-starter given the Republican Senate, using the full power of the Democratic majority in the House to investigate, subpoena and oversee the Executive is imperative. Not just because it’s the right thing to do as a matter of basic governance, but because whether Democrats do that or not, Trump and the Republicans will claim they are doing it anyway, casting themselves as victims and casting Democrats as radical tyrants. If that’s going to happen, you may as well do your damn job in the process and hold this administration’s feet to the fire.
The policy strategy she advocates, such as you can even call it that, may be the saddest part of it all. Pelosi makes it clear here, as she has made it clear previously, that she would prefer that Democrats offer no substantive policy positions that might inspire voters and harness the energy of the party’s motivated and highly organized base, all in the name of persuading the most swingy, uncommitted voters on a platform of platitudes and “alienation”-avoidance. The mythical “moderate swing” voter who, to the extent such beasts even exists — and there’s a lot of data suggesting they don’t — almost always swing right when they do, in fact, swing.
The absolute best that can be said about Pelosi’s “coldblooded strategy” is that it’s cynical. That she is counseling caution and moderation in the runup to 2020 in order to attract all of those swing voters and get a big, coup-negating victory but, once in power, Democrats will do good things, fix our nation’s many problems and govern in such a way that makes our lives and the lives of subsequent generations better. That’s the best case.
The more likely case: any Democrat taking her cautious, make-no-waves, offer-no-vision strategy now, if they even manage to win, will govern in a cautious, make-no-waves, offer-no-vision way. Partially because, if they promise nothing over the next 18 months, they will have no mandate to do anything ambitious whatsoever, even if they secretly wanted to all along. Mostly, though, because such an approach will be best adopted by someone who, in reality, has no ambition or concern about the future. Such as, I dunno, a nearly 80-year-old candidate who says he “doesn’t have time” to lay out a healthcare plan and who “has no empathy” for the problems faced by the nation’s largest living adult generation. For example.
It doesn’t have to be this way.
There are numerous candidates, leaders and voters on the left who stand for things other than winning the next election for its own sake.
There are numerous candidates, leaders and voters on the left who support not simply getting rid of Trump, which is a given and the bare minimum that must be done to get us out of the nightmare of the past few years, but in taking the fight to him directly.
There are numerous candidates, leaders and voters on the left invested in creating an affirmative vision of a better nation and society and doing what it takes to achieve that vision once in power.
There are numerous candidates, leaders and voters on the left who believe that achieving all of these things require that we not simply quietly tiptoe past the bully in the hallway and hope to God he doesn’t see us, but who know that to stop a bully you have to punch him in the goddamn mouth.
Support them. Don’t accept Nancy Pelosi’s sad, cynical and fearful “plan” or anyone who thinks that’s the best path forward. We can do better. And we should.