CNN
Now playing
03:08
Breaking down Trump's stonewall strategy against Dems
LONDON, ENGLAND - DECEMBER 07:  A visual representation of the digital Cryptocurrency, Bitcoin on December 07, 2017 in London, England. Cryptocurrencies including Bitcoin, Ethereum, and Lightcoin have seen unprecedented growth in 2017, despite remaining extremely volatile. While digital currencies across the board have divided opinion between financial institutions, and now have a market cap of around 175 Billion USD, the crypto sector coninues to grow, as it continues to see wider mainstreem adoption. The price of one Bitcoin passed 15,000 USD across many exchanges today taking it higher than previous all time highs.  (Photo by Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)
Dan Kitwood/Getty Images
LONDON, ENGLAND - DECEMBER 07: A visual representation of the digital Cryptocurrency, Bitcoin on December 07, 2017 in London, England. Cryptocurrencies including Bitcoin, Ethereum, and Lightcoin have seen unprecedented growth in 2017, despite remaining extremely volatile. While digital currencies across the board have divided opinion between financial institutions, and now have a market cap of around 175 Billion USD, the crypto sector coninues to grow, as it continues to see wider mainstreem adoption. The price of one Bitcoin passed 15,000 USD across many exchanges today taking it higher than previous all time highs. (Photo by Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)
Now playing
03:07
Bitcoin has an energy problem
Now playing
05:18
Anderson Cooper explains how he overcomes being shy
Now playing
01:32
Scientists turned spiderwebs into music and it sounds like a nightmare
Kristina Barboza
Now playing
03:09
Grieving mom's advice to other families: You can try to help, support and love
Jeopardy Productions, Inc.
Now playing
01:02
Aaron Rodgers' Green Bay Packers question stumps 'Jeopardy!' contestants
Now playing
02:35
WWII veteran: End of the war was 'the biggest thrill of my life'
Now playing
05:18
Coinbase CFO: We're an on-ramp to the crypto economy
CNN
Now playing
02:12
'Too dangerous to do anymore': Sacha Baron Cohen on Borat
Christopher Hamilton
Now playing
01:01
Volcanologist shares what he prefers to cook on lava flows
John Avlon 0413 Wallace
CNN
John Avlon 0413 Wallace
Now playing
03:31
Avlon compares Tucker Carlson's comments to George Wallace
screengrab hong kong oscars
IMDB / Field of Vision
screengrab hong kong oscars
Now playing
02:50
Hong Kong won't air Oscars for the first time since 1968
Now playing
01:27
See the first community of 3D-printed homes
Burlington, MA Headquarters
Nuance
Burlington, MA Headquarters
Now playing
01:34
Microsoft to buy AI company Nuance
Now playing
02:50
Sleep doctor tells Anderson Cooper how long a power nap should be
WASHINGTON, DC - DECEMBER 01: Chairman of the Federal Reserve Jerome Powell testifies during a Senate Banking Committee hearing about the quarterly CARES Act report on Capitol Hill December 1, 2020 in Washington, DC.  Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin also testified at the hearing. (Photo by Susan Walsh-Pool/Getty Images)
Susan Walsh/Pool/Getty Images
WASHINGTON, DC - DECEMBER 01: Chairman of the Federal Reserve Jerome Powell testifies during a Senate Banking Committee hearing about the quarterly CARES Act report on Capitol Hill December 1, 2020 in Washington, DC. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin also testified at the hearing. (Photo by Susan Walsh-Pool/Getty Images)
Now playing
02:06
Fed chief: The economy is about to grow more quickly

Editor’s Note: Julian Zelizer is a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University, and author, with Kevin Kruse, of the new book “Fault Lines: A History of the United States Since 1974.” Follow him on Twitter at @julianzelizer. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion at CNN.

(CNN) —  

If Democrats are not careful, they will end up in the worst of all political worlds.

Since the release of the Mueller report, the party’s leadership in Congress has been extraordinarily hesitant about taking the logical next steps. Faced with a 400-plus page report documenting extensive efforts by the President of the United States to obstruct justice, House Democrats have punted – making it pretty clear that impeachment proceedings will not be happening any time soon.

Even as the attorney general takes extraordinary steps to obstruct the subsequent hearings into obstruction, Democratic leaders remain tepid about any conversation that involves impeachment.

Once the damning substance of the Mueller report became clear, there were some Democrats, such as Sen. Elizabeth Warren, who called for impeachment proceedings to begin. This would have meant the House voting to refer impeachment to the House Judiciary Committee, which would then conduct an investigation into whether to vote for articles of impeachment.

The other option on the table was to decide that impeachment was not worth the political risk, especially since Senate Republicans would inevitably support the President, so that it was time to move on.

Thus far, House Democrats have chosen a third, seemingly safer, option of continuing with non-impeachment investigations. The objective was that there needed to be a phase – like the Senate Watergate hearings in 1973 – that educates the public and guides public opinion as to what to do.

Short of starting impeachment hearings, House Democrats have opened up a number of important committee investigations through the Judiciary and Oversight Committees. But the political risks of this middle-way process have become quickly clear. The President has made it apparent that he will refuse to play ball. Trump has announced that the administration will be ignoring subpoenas, preventing key officials from testifying and possibly invoking executive privilege.

During the Senate hearings, the administration’s outlook was on full display. Attorney General William Barr refused to answer some questions and misrepresented crucial findings. We learned that Robert Mueller sent Barr a letter indicating his displeasure with how the report was handled while House Speaker Nancy Pelosi told Democrats that Barr’s false statements were a “crime.” When the House Judiciary Committee asked Barr to appear, he refused, objecting to the idea that staff members and not just members of Congress would question him.

Democrats seemed flummoxed. When they began their investigations, they still seemed to have assumed that the administration would play by some kind of rules. They hoped that the hearing stage of these investigations would help educate the public and Congress about what has happened and create a more solid basis for determining whether impeachment proceedings should or should not begin. But instead, Democrats are getting nothing other than more obstruction, and the clock keeps ticking.

Fearing that the impeachment process will trigger a backlash akin to what Republicans faced in the late 1990s, Democrats are getting caught up in an investigative quagmire that is likely to result in cumbersome legal battles with the administration, uncooperative witnesses, meager information and ongoing news coverage about the clash between the branches rather than the actual substance of the evidence in the Mueller report.

At this rate, Democrats could realize their worst fears. They could wind up allowing these multiple investigations to keep dragging out without producing the kind of information that moves public opinion. Given that this is not an impeachment proceeding, Republicans will be able to find some political space to start claiming that Democrats are engaged in endless investigations that don’t lead to an up or down vote.

At the same time, the media coverage of the battles over the investigation will overshadow discussions of policy issues favorable to the Democrats and Republicans will berate their opponents for only investigating rather than caring at all about good governance.

But the political risks are even worse than this. Senate Republicans are ready to begin two years of their own investigations. While Democrats are perpetually outraged, Republicans are perpetually partisan. As some senators such as Lindsay Graham warned during the Barr hearings, they will open up their own hearings into whether the Obama administration allowed for illegal “spying” into the 2016 Trump campaign.

They will ramp up discussions, which Barr seems to support, of “deep state” conspiracies and corrupt federal agents. And this is just the start. It is easy to imagine that White House officials are gearing up to launch other investigations as well.

Trump’s lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, cited a New York Times story about Joe Biden’s son, Hunter, and his work in Ukraine in calling for an investigation of the matter. Biden has denied there was a conflict of interest.

Democrats need to remember that President Trump will have no hesitation going down this path. While “Make America Great” became his famous campaign slogan, the real message was “Lock Her Up!” And Trump will be preparing to do that again to whomever the Democratic candidate might be.

While the caution of the Democrats has been pushing them away from what many see as the legitimate and necessary decision to start impeachment hearings, Republicans will be coming after their opponents with hammer and tong.

All of the post-Mueller analysis focused on the political risks Democrats faced if they went down the path of impeachment. But the political risks of doing nothing – besides the Democratic risks of allowing the kinds of activities that have been documented about the President to stand – are immense.

Get our free weekly newsletter

The Democrats might now find themselves under a torrent of attacks for being the corrupt party while the President will be boasting to his supporters that everything else was a “hoax.” At some level, through inaction, Democrats will buttress his claims.

With strong economic numbers and relative peace abroad, Democratic timidity might be just the political medicine that a struggling Republican Party was hoping for, enough to carry them over the finish line on Election Day.