Elizabeth Spiers identifies something very important about the Democratic leadership (boldface mine):
None of this is to say that Pelosi is not personally horrified by what’s happening. Perhaps she is. But whatever she’s experiencing is obviously not compelling or severe enough to make her violate her notions of institutional decorum or consider the long-term consequences of looking the other way when the most corrupt, bigoted, and incompetent president in modern history continually escalates his corruptions, bigotries, and incompetence.
Those long-term consequences should be Pelosi’s primary consideration, but here she exhibits an unfortunate flaw of the entire party: the inability to think past the next election cycle.
Democrats, unlike their Republican counterparts, don’t invest longitudinally. They don’t think about voter contact as a long-term relationship that transcends particular electoral cycles. (Anyone who’s been on the receiving end of three-times-a-day bait-and-switch donor emails can attest to this.) They handicap what’s supposedly winnable—the baseline for which is polling at the beginning of the cycle, collected anecdotes, and a lot of bias about what candidates and campaigns should look like—and often at the expense of building any affirmative capacity to alter the actual terms of political engagement. Such thinking doesn’t exercise the imagination of the Democratic Party elite for the simple reason that it rarely pays off in absolute wins over the course of a single cycle.
Pelosi is no exception to these myopic trends—indeed, she tends to aggressively reinforce them, as one of her party’s premier fundraisers. Nearly every framing device that Pelosi has presented to justify her inaction pivots on the ostensible political cost of initiating impeachment proceedings during the 2020 election cycle. There’s no reckoning with the foreseeable costs or gains of an impeachment process beyond the election. When she does talk about the longer-term damage Trump is doing to American democracy, she speaks in vagaries: “We believe that no one is above the law,” she says, but until the House demonstrates that by enforcing law, it’s a meaningless abstraction.
It’s hard to believe that this is a function of naïveté—a sincere belief that the norms and laws Trump is constantly and gleefully violating will hold up under his repeated assaults. It’s more likely that after decades in politics, Pelosi is only capable of calculating losses and gains electorally. Systemic erosions go unnoticed in the daily chaos of reacting to Trump, and amid this broader state of inertia, they also do not figure in any macro way as part of Pelosi’s theory of change. That is to say, she has not engaged in the necessary public reflection with her caucus leaders or the public at large in order to explain just what should be done to reverse the horrible legacy of our present political moment, and to prevent anything like it from happening again once Trump is out of office….
Among other things, this reflex of self-insulation comes at the considerable cost of message coherence. That’s why at the bottom of all the recent controversy engulfing Pelosi’s speakership, there’s something of a yawning void of actual leadership—namely, the failure to articulate any rationale for inaction if that is, in fact, the best course…
If leadership does nothing, 2020 losses are more easily pinned on 2020 candidates. But if leadership acts, any postmortems will invariably point to action as an instigating factor, regardless of whether that actually proves to be the case. Sins of commission are always regarded as more egregious than sins of omission—and that seems to be the simplest explanation of why Pelosi is abdicating responsibility now in order to avoid accusations of culpability in the future.
I’ve said before that Pelosi’s guiding star is not to lose a single House seat. Unfortunately, when you are locked in the political equivalent of all out war–and it should be clear by now, Republicans think they are–you will lose if you are unwilling to even entertain the concept of casualties. As Spiers notes, that reflex inherently leads to inaction, which, at best, leads to nihilism among voters, and, at worst, something horrible. If not now, when?