One of the two Republican senators from Louisiana, John Kennedy, said something this week that many Democrats have repeatedly blurted in frustration, especially in recent weeks, about the endless debate over whether or not to impeach Donald Trump. Kennedy said on "Face the Nation": “You know, if you want to do it, go to Amazon online, buy a spine and do it.” We’re not aware of any spinal columns for sale on Amazon, but I get his point.
Naturally, Kennedy was daring Democrats to impeach Trump because he believes the half-baked common wisdom inside the Beltway that such a process will backfire, as if impeachment is somehow a reward these days rather than a seldom-used constitutional remedy for criminal presidents. Presidential historian Michael Beschloss, by the way, believes the comparison to Bill Clinton’s impeachment, in which the former president’s approvals apparently went up after being impeached, doesn’t hold water. Trump’s approval numbers are considerably lower than Clinton’s ever were, as Beschloss told Rachel Maddow last week, and the impeachment articles against Clinton weren’t nearly as serious as Trump’s would be.
Electorally, however, it never hurts for the Democrats to inject some vibranium into their collective spine in advance of a big election, especially in the months before one of them will run directly against the Republican opponent — an easily-triggered man-baby who is proudly reckless and unpredictable, and whose campaign will be reinforced through foreign cyber-invasions, social media nincompoopery and domestic voter suppression efforts. For the Democrats, and indeed for all of us who cherish our pre-Trumpism national values, the stakes and the structural obstacles are too significant for our leaders to sleepwalk through their campaigns, or to constantly tiptoe on eggshells for fear of upsetting "moderates."
After more than two years of the Mad King, American voters, moderate or otherwise, want exactly the same thing: strength and competence. They want a presidential hopeful who owns his or her positions; who owns every word; who doesn’t back down or apologize; who doesn’t faint upon the nearest couch the minute a Red Hat shouts “Libtard!” They want a chief executive who leads based on a resolute command of the facts, a natural grasp of personal decency and, more than anything else, presidential-ness. Gratefully, nearly every major Democratic contender is presidential material, with a firm grasp of reality and a grounding in decency and decorum.
The owning thing, on the other hand, is another story.
Before we get into a couple examples, I’d like to repeat something Andrew O’Hehir, Salon’s executive editor, wrote this week: “Let’s make the ritual pronouncement that it’s way too early for horse-race punditry.” Exactly. While I have my preferences, I’m not endorsing anyone at this point, and whatever you observe in the polls is nearly irrelevant, given the insufferably mercurial character of our news cycles these days, not to mention the possibility of hacked emails dumped into the world by Russian military intelligence. The race is mostly wide open, and whoever’s commanding the momentum today could lose it tomorrow.
Nevertheless, the Democratic field would do well to take some notes from Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, each of whom illustrated for us this week precisely how to own their positions without flinching or demurring. To be clear, other candidates have also shown us the robustness of their resolve, but in the past several days we’ve seen perfect examples from both Warren and Gillibrand. Not to belabor the point, but singling out these two candidates doesn’t necessarily mean I believe your candidate is spineless.
By now, you might’ve seen video of Warren marching in a Pride parade over the weekend. Actually, “marching” undersells it a little. She wasn’t merely wandering through the procession, paint-by-numbers style. Instead of the easy photo-op, the Massachusetts senator appeared draped in the world’s largest rainbow feather boa, and as the parade advanced, there she was, fist-pumping and high-fiving her way down the avenue. It was a brief moment, but one that carried a lot of weight. In the most out-there way possible, she wasn’t afraid to be seen doing something important, rather than merely talking about LGBTQ rights — showing us, not telling us, exactly where she stands. Even if you're on the fence about same-sex marriage or some other issue relating to the LGBTQ community, you have to give her points for diving in head-first.
Warren owned it. She was present, in the performance sense of the word, and she was authentic. If the social media reaction was any indication, Democratic voters all along the ideological spectrum are taking notice of her unwavering convictions. Any of the other candidates could have done the same. Warren, however, was the one who did. That’s leadership.
Meanwhile, knowing how I feel about Democratic spines, it might not surprise you to learn that I like the idea of the Democrats appearing on Fox News — not on the wildly mendacious prime-time agitprop shows or alongside the giggling couch tumors on the morning show. But on town halls and news interview programs, I vote yes. So far, Bernie Sanders, Amy Klobuchar, Pete Buttigieg and Gillibrand have cracked the Fox News nut, with Cory Booker, Julián Castro, Beto O’Rourke and Eric Swalwell showing interest. Warren probably won’t be invited after accusing Fox News of being “a hate-for-profit racket that gives a megaphone to racists and conspiracists.” Even if invited, yeah, that sounds like a “no.” Again, at least she’s owning exactly why.
Gillibrand is the most recent Democrat to participate in a Fox News town hall this past weekend. She made news not only because she choose to appear but because she took advantage of the opportunity, taking on Fox directly for its ludicrous and dangerous lie about “infanticide.” Neither the Democratic Party nor anyone else supports the idea of legalized infanticide. Fox News, as well as Trump himself, have preposterously extrapolated a ham-fisted remark by Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam about palliative care for infants born with catastrophic birth defects, egregiously reframing it as an issue of “infanticide.”
Accordingly, Gillibrand let Fox News viewers know exactly how counterfactual this is, much to the dismay of moderator Chris Wallace.
She didn’t change the subject, she didn’t allow Wallace to steamroll her, she didn’t blurt the same old weak, inoffensive talking points in support of choice — you know, the ones where Democrats concede too much ground or whisper their pro-choice position in hushed tones as if they can barely form the word “abortion” in their mouths. In fact, Gillibrand’s voice became louder and more forceful the more she revealed the truth to Wallace and viewers — that Fox News is lying about the Democratic position on “late-term abortions” (which are non-elective and extremely rare, less than 1 percent of all abortions) and that Fox News viewers need to listen to the truth. I assure you, the Fox audience heard something on Sunday night it hadn’t heard before, and that wouldn’t have happened had Gillibrand chickened out.
Gillibrand owned it, not just because the truth is on her side but because she has a fully intact spine.
To repeat: Americans are hungry for leadership, and too many have conned themselves into seeking it from a reality TV goon and serial liar whose financial losses were literally a drag on the national economy — a man whose business acumen is so horrendous that he’s floating on an ocean of foreign debt after having bankrupted a fleet of sure-thing casinos. The alternative presented to voters is a Democratic Party with a recent history of behaving like Shaggy and Scooby in a haunted amusement park, especially on impeachment.
At the 2008 Democratic convention, then-Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick begged the party, "It's time for Democrats to grow a backbone and stand up for what we believe." That was 11 years ago and still, to this day, some Democrats are quivering in their Crocs when it comes to owning their beliefs, even when it comes to the no-brainer process of holding the most corrupt president in history to some degree of accountability.
To defeat Trump next year, Democrats have to seize the initiative at every turn. They have to own being Democrats.
We shouldn’t have to say all this. Democrats have reality, science and facts on their side, not to mention a long history of historical successes: the New Deal, defeating the Axis powers on two fronts in World War II, Medicare, Medicaid, the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts, clean water and air, the Affordable Care Act, rescuing the auto industry and the national economy from a second Great Depression and more. Yet too many of them tend to apologize or slow-walk what they believe, rather than telling voters the truth in a way that’s both convincing and reassuring while simultaneously projecting a sense of gutsiness — of leadership. As we’ve seen, though, some of the Democrats at the highest levels are showing us exactly what they stand for. Here’s hoping Democratic voters will get the message and cast their ballots accordingly.