Toward the end of today’s long hearings, special counsel Robert Mueller struggled to find even the word “conspiracy” on his lips. Instead of drama, the hearings amounted to a recitation and endless reiteration of the stock phrases: no collusion, no exoneration. No interference from the Justice Department, and no charge of obstruction. That’s just the policy. “The president was not exculpated for the acts that he allegedly committed,” Mueller said.
Trump tweeted, of course: “So Democrats and others can illegally fabricate a crime, try pinning it on a very innocent President, and when he fights back against this illegal and treasonous attack on our Country, they call it Obstruction? Wrong!” A very innocent president who wasn’t exculpated for obstruction of an investigation into collusive acts with a hostile intelligence service by an investigation whose origins may also partly depend on intelligence planted into the body politic from the same hostile power. That was about the long and the longer of it.
The hearings allowed the special counsel to opine gravely about the inappropriateness of Trump’s praise of Wikileaks, and on the continuing danger of Russian interference, but on the whole it felt like the fumes going out of a long drama.
Democrats have reached this disappointing conclusion because their hopes have been misplaced. Their desire is that the president should be removed from office, perhaps that the result of the 2016 election itself could be abrogated. And that all this could all be effected while they remain passive observers and commentators. Perhaps they would only be the formal executors of a judgment made elsewhere.
And thus you’ve had the interminable buck-passing. It was once alleged that Attorney General William Barr’s press conference somehow caused the public or the Congress to misunderstand the nearly 500-page Mueller report released minutes later — as if the House majority had no power at all to lead or to shape public opinion on its voluminous contents.
Politico’s mid-day summary reflected this bottomless passivity among Democrats, reporting that the hearing “missed the mark for pro-impeachment Democrats … Those who wanted to begin impeachment proceedings needed bombshells from the former special counsel. Mueller gave them nothing besides affirmation about what was in his report, and a series of sidesteps when he did not want to answer questions.”
In other words, pro-impeachment Democrats wanted Mueller to make the decision for them, to take responsibility for moving public opinion in their favored direction. This is not how impeachment works under the Constitution, and it is not how political conflict works anyway.
Just as spectators of the political game, it should be obvious by now that this is the signature mistake that all of Trump’s opponents have made. A fear of direct confrontation with Trump and his base leads his opponents to hope that Trump can be defeated without hard fighting. Perhaps circumstances will change, or the media will finally pin him. Or maybe some other Trump opponent will pick the perfect kamikaze maneuver and reopen the political field.
This is a vain hope. Like Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz, and Hillary Clinton before them, House Democrats will lose any contest with Trump so long as they are unwilling to sustain political damage in the act of inflicting more damage to him.
One of the lessons of Tim Alberta’s new book American Carnage is that Trump wins because he refuses to doubt himself and always seeks the initiative in a media fight. He makes his opponents appear fearful and weak when they duck and dodge him.
And aggression is not the natural language of our political class. Our politicians call for regime change, as if war were a matter of switching office holders. Trump threatened countries with fire, fury, and annihilation. Cory Booker said last week “my testosterone sometimes makes me want to feel like punching” Donald Trump. And in that completely bizarre, and entirely non-credible threat is the Democrats’ problem heading into 2020. They sometimes feel like fighting. But I suspect they never will.