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Can Democrats grow a spine before American democracy collapses in a limp, lifeless heap? | Will Bunch

Confronted with a dictatorial bully, Democrats have responded like a quivering mass of fearful jelly. Is there any hope?

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi departs after her weekly media availability on Capitol Hill on June 27 in Washington.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi departs after her weekly media availability on Capitol Hill on June 27 in Washington.Read moreAlex Brandon / AP

It took less than a century for the Party of FDR to become the Party of Fear Itself. Democrats once earned decades of good will simply by being brave — in launching they-said-it-couldn’t-be-done programs to fight the Great Depression and then fighting off an actual Axis of Evil in World War II. Their actions showed that Franklin Roosevelt and his party really meant it when the 32nd president promised in his 1933 inaugural to fight back against “nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.”

In the Trump era, unreasoning and unjustified terror has a name, and it’s the Democratic Party. Time and time again over the last few years, Democrats have seen Republicans driving the big rig of the American Experiment toward and even straight through the guardrails of democracy like the out-of-control tanker truck in Spielberg’s Duel — and scrambled frantically to get out of the way.

The failure in 2016 to sound the alarms and shut down Washington over Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s blatantly unconstitutional hijacking of a Supreme Court seat was just a practice run, we now know, for what we see now: Slow-walking any meaningful hearings on President Trump’s high crimes and misdemeanors and — even worse — passing a McConnell-led bill last month that makes it way too easy for Trump to continue running his gulag of concentration camps.

The border security issue is, admittedly, a tough one for Congress. If you want better facilities to handle refugees who cross into America without authorization than today’s so-called “dog pounds” or decrepit facilities where kids are sleeping on concrete floors, you do need to buy things like beds, soap, and toothpaste. But you have to trust those dollars to an administration that seeks to score political points by cruelly mistreating asylum seekers in the first place.

The plan backed by many House Democrats would have taken money away from ICE —which any hour now may launch disruptive raids in cities across the United States — and unnecessary military activity at the border and put the savings into true humanitarian aid for refugees fleeing murder and rape in Central America. It also had much stronger safeguards for how migrants would be treated. This plan —much truer to American values than the gulag archipelago run by Team Trump — never stood a chance. Bullied by McConnell, the Trumpists, and their allies to pass a harsh Senate bill before the July 4 break or be called a bunch of bad names, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and her moderate clique of House Democratic leaders caved faster than the epicenter of a Southern California earthquake.

It was not a good deal. While about half the Democratic caucus was fighting to save lives, Pelosi was negotiating for House members to be informed within 24 hours after a kid dies in the camps. After. The young and radical wing of the Democrats was apoplectic, and that was understandable. Their avatar, newcomer Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (AOC) of New York City, called Pelosi’s decision to accept the Trump-friendly border plan “an abdication of power.” Her aide, Corbin Trent, a leader of the Justice Democrats seeking a more aggressively progressive party, went even farther, stating that the “greatest threat to mankind” is the “cowardice of the Democratic Party.”

OK, let’s back up. (First of all, it’s “humankind”... c’mon, man.) But more importantly, our greatest threat remains rising neo-fascism around the globe, epitomized in the United States by Trump and his concentration camps, his love for tanks and other trappings of dictatorship, and his growing disregard for the Constitution. But by failing to fight this horrible scenario with every weapon at their disposal, the Democrats are becoming modern-day Quislings, and you don’t want to be on that side of history.

It took just six months to squander the glorious moment when Pelosi took back the gavel as speaker in January, when the Democrats could finally claim one hand on the wheel of a runaway government. Remember the Michael Cohen hearing last winter, supposedly just the down payment on two years of hearings, subpoenas and aggressive oversight that would expose Trump leading up to the 2020 election and keep his authoritarian tendencies in check? Instead, that was both the beginning and the end. Without the bludgeon of an impeachment inquiry, there have been no more impactful hearings. Subpoenas and laws requiring information be given to Congress and to the public are routinely ignored, and instead of responding right away, the Democrats take weeks to fight back. Team Trump is running out the clock on constitutional checks and balances, and it’s working.

The Mueller report is a litany of high crime and misdemeanors committed by the president of the United States. But it’s hard to say what was more remarkable about the Mueller rollout — the unusually clever obstructions of Team Trump or the ineptness of the Democrats in coping with that. It took weeks for the House Dems to even get Robert Mueller to agree to testify, with the aim of turning a report that too few people read into a TV show that everyone will watch.

That happens on July 17, but let’s be brutally honest. The Mueller moment has already passed, and the Democrats helped make that happen by failing to aggressively pounce on its findings. That created a void that’s been filled by other crises and scandals, including (understandably) outrage over kids in cages at the southern border. Does anyone honestly believe that the stoically understated former special counsel — who had his own cowardice moment in failing to recommend whether Trump’s obstruction of justice merits impeachment — will suddenly change the dynamic in the dead of a brutally hot summer.

Barring a bombshell revelation that goes beyond anything we’ve seen before, I simply can’t imagine a scenario where Congress holds Trump accountable for his abuses of power and impeaches him between now and Jan. 20, 2021. Can you? And the blame for that falls squarely on Pelosi and other House moderates.

But Pelosi — whose people-management skills in holding together an unruly Democratic caucus are admirable, but who fails to grasp how seriously democracy is threatened in the Trump era — doesn’t deserve all of the blame. On the Senate side, Minority Leader Chuck Schumer — the dictionary definition of a Wall Street Democrat — also signed on to the terrible border bill and has shown no skill in blocking a rapid Trumpist takeover of the federal judiciary. The Democrats’ current front-runner (albeit slipping fast) for president, former Vice President Joe Biden, has a 1973 mentality about how politics works in Washington — delusional that his magical powers of persuasion and congeniality will somehow convince our norms-murdering Republicans to abruptly put down the gun.

Why are they so afraid of confronting Republicans? The Intercept’s Ryan Grim — who’s written an outstanding book called We’ve Got People that traces the rise of an actual progressive wing of the Democratic Party right through AOC (seriously, buy it) — published a provocative op-ed in the Washington Post that traces the night sweats of the Democrats and its Pelosi-Schumer-Biden generation to the 1980s and the rise of Ronald Reagan that killed any remnants of the FDR New Deal era.

“When these leaders plead for their party to stay in the middle, they’re crouching into the defensive posture they’ve been used to since November 1980, afraid that if they come across as harebrained liberals, voters will turn them out again,” Grim writes. (He also notes that millionaire donors really like this less confrontational version of the Democratic Party.) But the Pelosi clique has failed to notice that the electorate has changed — too young to remember the culture wars of the 1960s and ’70s, and now convinced that progressive ideas like universal health care and universal public college aren’t harebrained at all. Republicans have changed, too, since the Reagan-Biden era, when the two parties could fix Social Security over a bourbon or two.

The other problem, as I see it, is that political bullying works. For decades now we’ve talked about the Republicans as America’s “Daddy Party” — stern, tougher on defense or crime — and Democrats as a “Mommy Party” that’s more nurturing and supportive of a social safety net (and thus über-performing with women voters). But in today’s deeply dysfunctional family in Washington, Mommy is terrified of an abusive Dad who’s constantly drunk on authoritarianism. It’s only the kids — AOC and her bold congressional colleagues like Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar — willing to speak up about the elephant in the room.

People, it’s time for an intervention. Grim told me this weekend that “naming the fear is the key thing," but I wonder if events are already moving past that. Today’s political activists will need to multi-task. Some say Democrats can’t beat Trump if divided — but you also can’t unify around nothing. I’d say it’s past time for a double-edged sword of resistance — to pressure Pelosi and other Democrats to be bold while not losing focus on the greater evils of Trumpism. The most cowardly Democrats should not just be mildly cajoled but protested and challenged in primaries if their not up to the challenge of the 21st century and its new forms of fascism. The party will need to figure out how to move forward while growing a new spine, or America will collapse in a quivering heap.

Fear can be contagious, and I can see it spreading among the Democratic movement — fear of impeaching an unlawful president, fear of bold maneuvers even to stop a “Never Again”-level human-rights catastrophe, fear that America isn’t ready to elect a woman president. Enough! No one yet knows the exact recipe for ending Trump’s presidency but I can tell the one formula that is absolutely guaranteed to fail — fear itself.