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Virginia Heffernan: The Democrats' 'squad,' infighting and extremism may save the nation

Virginia Heffernan, Los Angeles Times on

Published in Op Eds

When 65,853,514 of us cast our ballots for Hillary Clinton on November 8, 2016, we were voting for the relative peace, opportunity and pluralism of Barack Obama's America. The majority of voters that day at the polls hoped for an experienced leader known for effectiveness and compromise.

We got the opposite. Now 2016 is a distant country, and high-minded Obaman governance -- with its emphasis on civility and common ground -- seems more like complicity than collegiality.

Our country's problems have become too dark, too deep and too pervasive for Democrats to think it's enough to ease President Trump out in a fair -- hah -- 2020 election. It won't work to restore power to an establishment politician who will glad-hand with Sen. Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) and try to hide the structural damage Trump has done to democracy.

What the nation should welcome is every effort to shake congressional leadership out of its dogmatic coma. The motion on Tuesday by Rep. Al Green (D-Texas) to impeach Trump for his racist remarks was promptly tabled as impolite, premature or somehow unwise. It should have been greeted as a shot in the arm for lawmakers who meet the daily catastrophe in the White House mostly with lethargy, defeatism and stupefaction. What is required is anything but for good people to keep doing nothing.

So let this be a shout out to noisy "extremists," to Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, to New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and the rest of "the squad," to former Republican Rep. Justin Amash (I-Mich.), to California Sen. Kamala Harris.

Moderate Democrats are standing on ceremony in a way that seems increasingly bizarre. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi shouldn't allow impeachment hearings because it might fire up the redhats who shout "send her back" about Minnesota Rep. Ilhan Omar ? The Justice Department can't indict a sitting president despite his clear criminal conduct? We should shush politicians of color who talk about desegregation and, for heaven's sake, civil rights because they might alienate racists? These dictates are excuses for a form of nervous gradualism that, as the months of Trump's border camps and white supremacy grind on, has become paralysis.

According to Dr. Bandy Lee, a Yale psychiatrist whose team has produced a report -- "The Dangerous Case of Donald Trump" -- the nation is suffering a kind of cognitive stagnation, a moral contraction, a death wish. There are even indices that suggest a literal death wish. Life expectancy in the U.S., on the rise since the dawn of the republic, is now in decline. Despair diseases -- depression, addiction, suicide -- are highest in counties that went for Trump.

This is no time to lie down and die. Yet congressional leaders of all stripes seem to be succumbing to their own despair disease.

In Federalist 51, which explains the role checks and balances play in the Constitution, James Madison wrote, "Ambition must be made to counteract ambition." In other words, Madison believed that a nation -- even a nation of devils -- required contention to keep itself in working order.

 

Those who panic about infighting among Democrats in Congress, or among the 2020 presidential candidates, are only stifling productive Madisonian conflict. Those who carp about upstarts are only adding to the atrophy of the body politic.

Last week on "The View," candidate Harris was asked why she had "attacked" former Vice President Joe Biden on his civil rights record. "This is a presidential race, " she said. "We're on a debate stage. And if you haven't prepared, and you are not ready ... then you are probably not ready." That's right, and you won't succeed in taking the White House back from Trump.

The president cannot abide so much as a goofy sketch sending up his norm-breaking on "Saturday Night Live." He is intent on gagging, intimidating, even jailing his opponents (e.g. Clinton, James B. Comey, Omar, even Robert S. Mueller III). He is supremely willing to obstruct justice, according to hundreds of former federal prosecutors who've done what too few of us have: read the Mueller report. His blocks and tackles are an admission that his ideas, policies and his presidency cannot withstand the contest of ambitions Madison identified as the lifeblood of the republic.

But Pelosi can take being called an out-of-step careerist. Ocasio-Cortez can take being called an attention-seeking socialist. Biden can, one hopes, brook a challenge to his past positions. They -- and the country -- will be better for it. That kind of engagement among Democrats is the only way to keep an imperiled nation alive.

(c)2019 Los Angeles Times

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