OPINION — Anger in politics is like the porridge in “Goldilocks and the Three Bears” — it has to be just right.
Too little anger breeds a sense of complacency and decreases the urgency of voting. Too much anger produces self-defeating rhetoric that repels the very undecided voters that you are struggling to attract.
Such is the Democratic dilemma after the soul-destroying confirmation of Brett Kavanaugh. The failure to win any support among Senate Republicans — with the conspicuous exception of Lisa Murkowski — can be viewed as the final vindication of Mitch McConnell’s scorched-earth tactics that stymied Merrick Garland.
Hillary Clinton gave voice to this bitter frustration when she told CNN’s Christiane Amanpour, “You cannot be civil with a political party that wants to destroy what you stand for, what you care about. That’s why I believe, if we are fortunate enough to win back the House and/or the Senate, that’s when civility can start again.”
Now, like any American citizen, Hillary Clinton has the right to free speech and the right to paid speech. In fact, Clinton and her husband Bill will soon embark on a 13-city paid speaking tour with tickets ranging from $60 to $375 each. This latest installment of Clinton buckraking should remind Americans to appreciate the altruistic post-presidential example of Jimmy Carter.
Questioned about Hillary Clinton’s comments in her own interview with CNN, endangered North Dakota Democrat Heidi Heitkamp must have thought the equivalent of Dorothy Parker’s line, “What fresh hell is this?”
Heitkamp should be a Democratic hero after her principled, damn-the-polls vote against Kavanaugh. Instead, she had to react to Clinton’s ill-considered claim that civility should be on furlough until the Democrats regain power. As Heitkamp adroitly put it, “That’s ridiculous. I mean I can’t imagine how you get anything done if you don’t bring civility back into politics. And that goes for both sides.”
In truth, Clinton’s comments highlight the central debate facing the out-of-power Democrats: What is the best strategy to counter Donald Trump and Mitch McConnell?
Despite widespread warnings that they were poised to produce their own left-wing version of the excesses of the tea party movement, the Democrats displayed uncharacteristic prudence in this year’s congressional primaries.
As research by my friend Elaine Kamarck, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, discovered, “The most successful endorsement group in the 2018 primaries was not Our Revolution or any of the other new progressive political action groups — it was that most staid of all organizations, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, which won 39 of the 41 races in which it endorsed a candidate.”
The real battle within the Democratic Party is not over ideology but temperament.
Even if the Democrats win both the House and the Senate in November, they will not be passing any legislation as long as Trump remains in the White House. About the best that they can hope for before 2020 would be to block any further evisceration of Obamacare and to reject far-right and unqualified judicial nominees.
There is, however, a growing belief among Democrats that — even if they get just a fragment of power — they should emulate McConnell and out-of-control House committee chairmen like Devin Nunes.
Under this theory, civility and regular order in Congress are for wimps. The only things that matter are naked power and a passion for vengeance. Rather than repairing the institutions of Congress that the Republicans have wantonly abused, Democrats should instead further exploit them.
Who wore it best?
Already, there is growing talk of the Democrats trying to expand the Supreme Court to 11 justices to counteract the unsavory tactics that McConnell used to stack the court. It is also possible to imagine that futile efforts to impeach Kavanaugh would become the Democratic equivalent of the GOP’s ferocious and fanciful hearings about a mythical Hillary Clinton conspiracy over Benghazi.
This fight-fire-with-fire strategy has led Democrats — who should know better — to take seriously publicity-hound lawyer Michael Avenatti as a spokesman for the party and a plausible presidential candidate. By believing that the only way to win in contemporary America is to ape Trump’s guttersnipe tactics, these Democrats inadvertently reveal the fragility of democratic norms.
Democrats, for strategic reasons, are portraying the 2018 elections as a referendum on health care — with the Republicans, for a change, on the defensive. In truth, what is on the ballot in November is a last-ditch drive to curb Trump’s authoritarian tendencies and to shine a spotlight on the rampant corruption of his administration.
By refusing to seriously investigate anything from Russian hacking to Trump’s private-sector profiteering as president, the Republican Congress has forfeited its claims to be an independent branch of government. Instead, it is has been a lickspittle legislature with the freedom of an indentured servant.
The biggest mystery in American political life is what the Robert Mueller investigation has discovered about Trump. If, as is plausible but far from certain, Mueller presents evidence of potentially impeachable offenses, the Democrats would have to tread carefully and responsibly.
The question for Democrats at that juncture should not be, “What would McConnell do?” Rather, it should be, “What would a Watergate hero like Sam Ervin do?”
And that’s where the old-fashioned virtue of civility, scorned by Hillary Clinton, comes in. For it will take a village — a bipartisan village — to repair the damage that Trump and McConnell have done to American democracy.
Watch: As Midterms Enter Final Stretch, Senators Ready Their Rallying Cries