Republicans and Democrats Are Scared of the Voters

I’m back from my annual three-week Washington program, where each year I have a chance to meet with public officials and take the temperature of politics inside the Beltway. The most striking thing about DC this spring is how the breakdown of political consensus has paralyzed both parties at a time when we most need them to push back against a lawless president whose latest move has been to openly ask for foreign assistance to help him win the 2020 election.

If you could give truth serum to House and Senate Democrats and Republicans and make them act on their expressed beliefs, Donald Trump would be impeached, convicted and removed from office. His glaring lack of fitness for the presidency is an open secret. But Republicans are trapped by their fear of crossing his supporters and Democrats are tied in knots over the fear of alienating suburban voters who made up a key portion of their successful 2018 coalition and are more concerned with health care than impeachment. 

Republicans genuinely face an existential crisis, albeit a crisis of their own making. By acquiescing to Trump’s ownership of their radicalized base, they have left themselves no room to oppose him. Theirs is a minority governing coalition at odds with the rest of the electorate and entirely dependent on its leader; to cross Trump under these circumstances is to face the abyss. Whether they recognize it or not — and some certainly do — by refusing to rein in Trump they they have chosen to maintain their grip on power at the expense of  liberal democracy. Souls were sold long ago, and every day Republicans indict themselves with their silence.

Democrats face a more complex political calculation as they attempt to cobble together a winning 2020 coalition from what remains of what we used to call consensus public opinion. Outside the Democratic base, where calls for impeachment are intense, the story of Trump’s crimes has been deliberately muddied by Attorney General Barr and aggressive administration stonewalling of evidence and witnesses. Democratic leadership regards buy-in from this muddled middle as a prerequisite to moving ahead with impeachment, fearing that to proceed without them risks electoral catastrophe next year. If Democrats could only tell the story of conspiracy and obstruction through public hearings, then they reason that public support for impeachment will grow. But they can’t hold those hearings without evidence and witnesses, which the administration has aggressively blocked.

So we have arrived at a point where the zero-sum politics of our divided society is curtailing both parties and preventing us from rising to a moment that should be much larger than politics. It is shrouding both parties in cowardice. Republicans look the other way and put self-interest over the health of the republic. Democrats ask us to believe there is a criminal in the Oval Office, but somehow it’s too early to consider removing him. Meanwhile, their collective inaction serves as a green light for Trump to operate at will. 

I don’t see how this dynamic can hold for a year and a half. I’m not sure it can last a month and a half, with new allegations about Trump’s wrongdoing regularly oozing out and with House Democratic leadership under intense pressure from a growing share of its caucus to take action. But for the moment the politics of division is placing a crisis of utmost urgency in an unreal state of suspended animation.