The Slatest

The Democrats Will Never Learn

Obama waves while walking ahead of the group of legislators.
Barack Obama with Democratic legislators, including Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer and now–Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, at the Capitol on Jan. 4, 2017.
Aaron P. Bernstein/Getty Images

On Tuesday, Nancy Pelosi followed up a controversial New York Times interview in which she said House Democrats should not impeach Donald Trump with a speech in which she asserted that the president is “goading” Democrats into impeachment because it would help him politically. Pelosi and her fellow party leaders appear committed to a strategy of repudiating Trump’s corruption by waiting for a “big” Democratic win in the national elections 18 months from now, rather than by exercising their constitutional powers.

What’s interesting about this is not just that it seemingly misreads the dynamics of the moment, but that it is the same strategy Democrats have used to approach all of this century’s political crises: declining to punish the people responsible for them because of the belief that doing so would be “divisive” and the expectation that public shame—a collective “coming to our senses”—would prevent the problem from recurring instead. Remarkably, this strategy has failed every time they’ve tried it. Look!

Torture: As president, Barack Obama chose not to prosecute any of the individuals who created and carried out the post-9/11 “enhanced interrogation” system that Obama himself identified as “torture.” Torturing a criminal suspect or prisoner of war is illegal, but Obama said that he wanted to “look forward as opposed to looking backward” on the subject. Gina Haspel, who supervised the interrogation of a suspect who was tortured and later destroyed recordings that documented torture, is now the director of the CIA. Now that’s going backward!

Iraq: Obama and the Democrats who held both houses of Congress during his presidency also chose not to open any inquiries into the various lies and acts of negligence involved in the George W. Bush administration’s invasion of Iraq. (Some official investigations had taken place under Bush, but with one exception they were either led by Republicans or bipartisan Beltway-establishment figures.*) Obama’s belief, in sum, seemed to be that merely having replaced the Bush administration with more decent, honest people—“we are the ones we’ve been waiting for,” he said often during the 2008 campaign—was rebuke enough. These days the Obamas and Bushes are buddies who do funny photo-ops at ceremonial state events. And one of the main Bush administration figures involved in promoting the claim that Saddam Hussein was stockpiling weapons of mass destruction is Trump’s national security adviser.

• The financial crisis: Obama and Attorney General Eric Holder famously declined to hold any big-bank executives criminally responsible for the vast systematic fraud that created the 2008 crash. These days the culture of non-accountability persists, while Wells Fargo apologizes for a newly uncovered pre-crash-style ripoff scheme every month or so.

The Supreme Court: When Antonin Scalia died in early 2016 and Republicans controlled the Senate, Obama nominated highly credentialed, moderate federal Judge Merrick Garland to replace him in the expectation that Republican senators wouldn’t be able to sustain a blockade of an obviously qualified, non-radical candidate for an entire year. But they did. Boy, did they ever!

The nomination of Donald Trump: Many Democrats were excited that Donald Trump won the 2016 Republican nomination because, they believed, he would lose the general election “bigly” (hahahaha) and cause the Republican Party to splinter/explode. Nope!

Not all of these decisions and beliefs were, at the time, obviously stupid, unsupportable, or without precedent. After Watergate, for example, ex-President Richard “Crimes” Nixon kept his mouth mostly shut for a few decades despite having avoided formal punishment, because of shame. But that was the past, and now shame is dead; it died on Nov. 9, 2016. The era of coming to our senses has passed, and the need to begin the age of actually doing things gets more urgent all the time.

*Correction, May 7, 2019, 6:20 p.m.: An earlier version of this post misstated that no Iraq committees were led by Democrats.