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.
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.
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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.