Over the years, when asked by someone for my counsel on one thing or another, I’ve used the concept of “the characteristic error.” If someone is trying to decide between two different courses of action, and they’re seeing some balance in the arguments for each direction, I would ask them: When you make a wrong choice, in which direction do you generally err?
(And I’ve done the same with myself.)
If, for example, one choice is in the direction of caution and the other choice is more toward boldness, then I might ask: When you have made mistakes, have they generally been in the direction of hanging back too much in pursuit of safety or in the direction of being too reckless?
One might reasonably conclude that — if the person, with a characteristic bias on that spectrum, perceives a balance between the reasons for caution or boldness — the real weight of the argument is likely to be in the direction to which they characteristically give too short shrift.
The Democrats’ Characteristic Error
And that’s how it is with the Democrats now.
Again and again, in dealing with the force that has taken over the Republican Party over the past quarter century, the Democrats have erred in the direction of excessive caution — excessive disinclination to join battle. And all this while — from, say, 1994 to 2017 — this increasingly destructive Republican Party has been steadily gaining in power.
Almost without exception, the Democrats have failed to match the intensity the Republicans have brought to the battles that the Republicans have insisted will define the politics of this era:
- while the Republican made a continuous assault on Bill Clinton’s presidency;
- during the 2000 Election standoff;
- when W chose to break national unity for partisan advantage in post 9/11 America, weaponizing and abusing “the war on terror”;
- during the 2004 swift-boating of John Kerry;
- in relation to the many and clearly impeachable “high crimes and misdemeanors” (including with torture and the torture memo) committed by the Bush-Rove-Cheney presidency;
- as the Republicans engaged in across-the-board obstructionism throughout Obama’s presidency;
- while the Republicans sought to use a racist “birther” lie to delegitimize the Obama Presidency;
- as the Republicans unprecedented conduct on Obamacare –from beginning to end — was completely indefensible according to basic American norms;
- when the Republicans stole a Supreme Court seat (and thereby of the Supreme Court majority for perhaps a generation) with the unprecedented (and arguably unconstitutional) distortion of “advise and consent” to rob a President of his constitutional powers.
In every instance, the Republicans showed fierce determination to do everything they could to grab power, unrestrained by respect for the spirit and letter of the constitutional order.
And in every instance, the Democrats shrank from the battle, with the result that the good of the nation — as well as the political interest of the Democrats — suffered.
Obama, as President, exemplified the Democrats’ characteristic error:
- Obama’s taking the position that we should look “forward” and not “backward” when it came to dealing with quite possible crimes by the Bush-Rove-Cheney administration– as if the enforcement of the laws of the land, which he’d just taken an oath to do, didn’t always require that we look backward to the crimes that have already been committed– was one such error. It sent the unfortunate, but too true, signal that Democrats are afraid of angering the right by holding Republicans accountable for their wrong-doing.
- Obama never worked to focus the attention of the American people to the indefensibility of the Republicans’ across-the-board obstructionism. From the bully pulpit, he never exposed how this Republican obstructionism demonstrated their contempt for the will of the American people (who had hired someone to perform the constitutionally important role of President) and thus contempt also for the spirit of the Constitution.
- Obama should have made the Republican strategy of indifference to the good of the nation a focus of national attention. But, in the 2014 Elections, Obama and the Democrats did nothing to channel the understandable frustrations of the American people against the proper target– i.e.the Republicans, who had been deliberately disabling the government from moving America forward. He should have done all he could to get the American people to see how the Republicans were making national failure their goal, with the plan of getting Americans to blame the Democrats for that failure. (“See. Obama could do nothing. Elect our guy and we’ll get things done.”)
- Obama should have screamed bloody murder when the Republicans took the unprecedented step of refusing to allow a President to exercise his legitimate constitutional authority to be the one who names — with “the advice and consent” of the Senate — the person to fill a Supreme Court vacancy. He should have challenged the Republican abuse of Senatorial power all the way to the Supreme Court.
And it is especially telling about the Democratic political culture that — at the time — Obama’s shrinking from these battles was not particularly noticed or opposed by the Democratic rank-and-file. Nor, since Obama left office, has all of Obama’s forfeiting of battles — battles that really needed to be fought — seemed to weigh noticeably in how the Democratic base assesses the Obama presidency.
The Democrats’ characteristic error could hardly be clearer: repeatedly shrinking from battles that should be fought and won, never erring in the direction of pressing too aggressively a battle that should be avoided or downplayed.
Can anyone name a single example of when the Democrats raised their voices too loudly, or were too confrontive of the Republicans (the Republicans who, in their posture toward Democrats, have never stopped choosing attack and conflict over cooperation)?
That characteristic error is something to think about at the current crucial juncture, where this long-running battle is reaching a kind of climax, i.e. when Republican repulsiveness and destructiveness and lawlessness and dishonesty have culminated in this grotesque and dangerous Trump Presidency (and in the Trump Party that chooses to protect him and against the rule of law in the American constitutional order).
Our past patterns gives no reason to worry that we’ll press the battle too strongly, and every reason to suspect that the Democrats will play their cards too timidly or dispassionately.
How The Present Battle Might Best Be Pressed
So what would be good, bold, strong, aggressive ways of pressing this battle? How can the Democrats best be both fierce and effective on the battlefield of this moment, defined by the presence in the White House of this lawless President, by this expertly crafted vast Mueller Report, and by an American people with their present constellation of beliefs and feelings about Donald Trump and the investigation?
The Democrats are wise in understanding that one bold move not to make at this moment is a declaration that an impeachment process has begun.
The Democrats have correctly understood that — for the good of the nation — the impeachment issue should be kept away from the center of the national conversation (even if it should remain an ongoing topic of discussion), so that the focus can remain instead on the picture of Trump’s dangerous lawlessness and his misconduct unforgivable in an American President.
The process of public education — including the dramatization of the picture that Mueller has painted — can help the impeachment process, when it comes, to play a constructive — perhaps even cleansing — role for the nation, minimizing how much it feeds bitter divisions in the body politic.
So how can the Democrats be bold, within the pre-Impeachment mode? How in particular to respond to the President’s unprecedented across-the-board refusal to cooperate with Congress in its executive of its constitutionally mandate responsibility of oversight.
Some parts of an answer were proposed the other evening on MSNBC from Joshua Matz, co-author with Lawrence Tribe of a recent book on Impeachment:
After saying that Congress could seek “emergency relief” from the Courts, Matz indicated that
- the Congress could “link some key funds for federal agencies to compliance with its requests.”
- the Congress could consider stripping the salary away from executive branch officials who refuse to comply with its [lawful] demands.
- and Congress could “consider impeaching not [at present the President but] members of his cabinet (or instruments or orchestators) of [Trump’s] campaign of defiance.
In addition to such matters of action, attention should also be paid to the nature of the rhetoric used in an attempt to reach and to move the American people.
The goal must be to kindle in as many Americans as possible the fire of wanting to protect the nation from this dangerous, lawless President. How would you speak to the nation about this if the goal were to create that groundswell for Congress to do what our founders would want it to do if faced with a President like this one.
Democrats need to adjust their speech to reach the whole nation with messages so formulated as to inspire strong support for Congress ultimately doing whatever it is our founders would have wanted them to do with such a President.