House Democrats—and just about everyone else—were rightfully disturbed by President Donald Trump’s admission earlier this week that he would once again accept “foreign dirt” in the 2020 presidential contest. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi told reporters that “Everybody in the country should be totally appalled by what the president said last night…. He has a habit of making appalling statements. This one borders on so totally unethical, but he doesn’t even realize it.” Representative Hakeem Jeffries, recognized by many as Pelosi’s heir apparent, went even further. He told MSNBC’s Stephanie Ruhle that “accepting assistance from a hostile foreign power like Russia is treasonous behavior.”
Appalling, unethical, treasonous. These are serious charges. But Pelosi and Jeffries have developed a kind of bait and switch—they make a bombastic claim, and then back away from it. Immediately after calling the president “appalling” and “unethical,” Pelosi continued, “However, what we want to do is have a methodical approach to the path we’re on, and this will be included in that. But not any one issue is going to trigger, ‘Oh now we’re going to go do this.’” Jeffries, meanwhile, told Ruhle that the House was doing everything it could to hold the president accountable. “I think we have to move forward and stay the course in terms of following the facts, applying the law, and being guided by the United States Constitution,” he said, touting recent, incremental court victories.
The dynamic at play is fairly clear. Pelosi and House leadership are trying to throw a bone to the rising number of pro-impeachment Democrats in the caucus by escalating their anti-Trump rhetoric. But their strategy remains the same as it was when they retook power in January: Turn up the heat slowly and don’t do anything likely to risk a 2020 presidential victory. But as their rhetoric escalates, Pelosi and Jeffries sound increasingly feeble and insincere, less like the leaders of a party with a clear majority and growing momentum, and more like Jeff Flake.
There are significant and obvious differences, of course. Flake, who represented Arizona in the U.S. Senate from 2013 until this January, approached Trump from the free-market right. He titled his anti-Trump quasi-manifesto Conscience of A Conservative, copying fellow Arizonan and Senate alum Barry Goldwater. While Flake, a devout Mormon, was concerned about Trump’s lack of a moral compass and generally appalling behavior, he was also mourning the loss of a more austerity-focused Republican Party—one that made more of an effort to disguise its racism, and was dogmatically committed to free trade, tax cuts for the rich, and the rapid defunding of the social safety net.
Flake’s Conscience of a Conservative was written in secret—its existence was not known until shortly before it was published—and released in August of 2017. It represented a coming out of sorts for Flake, who quickly assumed what was left of the “Never Trump” mantle. “We pretended that the emperor wasn’t naked,” he writes about his fellow Republicans in the book. “Even worse: We checked our critical faculties at the door and pretended that the emperor was making sense.” It is, at its best, a self-excoriation and a bitter reflection on how electoral politics can lead to Faustian bargains that erode one’s moral character and good sense. Its perceived audience was also notable. The big problem with the Never Trump movement was that it largely only talked to itself; sealed off from real-world fights, it was a callow, egocentric, and weak-willed attempt to resist Trump’s rise. Flake’s book, at least, was ostensibly aimed at his colleagues in the Senate. “This guy is pretty nuts,” the argument went. “We should probably do something about it.”
The problem, of course, is that Flake didn’t do anything about it. Even as the Republican Party’s margin in the Senate continued to shrink, Flake kept voting for stuff. He voted for the Tax Cut and Jobs Act. He approved a parade of right-wing judges. He toed the party line, really only stepping out—like his colleagues senators Bob Corker and Susan Collins—to whine to the media after some particularly gross or offensive presidential tweet.
Flake did ultimately do something: He temporarily slowed the approval of judicial nominations as a protest of the administration’s trade policy. But Flake ultimately dropped his protest at the moment when it most mattered. Though apparently agonized, he voted to confirm Brett Kavanaugh to seat on the Supreme Court. Then, Flake retired.
The problem that representatives in Democratic leadership have now is similar. They are appalled by Trump’s words and actions. They are certain that he has committed crimes, both as president and before. They consistently condemn Trump’s conduct to the public and the press. Pressed about the president’s bizarre tweets about alleged U.S. cyber attacks on Russia, House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff told Face the Nation’s Margaret Brennan that we had yet to resolve whether Trump and others close to him “might be acting as witting or unwitting agents of a foreign power.”
Over the last several months, House Democratic leadership has slowly ramped up their rhetoric to include words like “treason.” House Judiciary Chairman Jerome Nadler has said that there “certainly is” justification to begin impeachment proceedings, but has yet to publicly back beginning them. Pelosi herself has not only said that the president should be “in jail” but accused him of orchestrating a “cover-up.” Trump’s presidency is described as an existential threat, an insult to the moral fabric of the nation, a cancer that must be removed. Every time the president disgraces himself or outrages the nation, Democrats run to the cameras to register their disgust.
There is a time for registering disgust, but America is long past it. The country was already past it when Flake published his book. Democrats, for the first two years of Trump’s presidency, got to sit in the back row and shoot spitballs. But now, controlling the House of Representatives, they are front and center, with real authority. It’s not just about thinking they should do something, they can do something. Like a latter-day Flake, they are shirking that responsibility. Some might call that “appalling” and “unethical.”