Asymmetry is killing me

Welcome back to The Long Version, a newsletter by Jonathan M. Katz.

If you want to get a sense of the terminal whiplash that’s destroying the republic, take a look at this weekend’s news cycle.

On Friday, Nancy Pelosi was called on to defend the impending impeachment of Donald Trump by explaining her decision not to impeach his Republican predecessor, George W. Bush.

When Pelosi became speaker of the House the first time, in 2007, she faced calls from voters and her caucus to impeach Bush for lying his way into the Iraq War. Pelosi, like most congressional Democrats, had opposed the invasion and voted against authorizing it. As the ranking member on the House Intelligence Committee, she knew “there were no nuclear weapons in Iraq,” and that Saddam Hussein had nothing to do with the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. She called Bush’s actions “appalling.”

And yet, she insists today, it was not grounds for impeachment. In explaining, she did not address the thirty-five articles of impeachment introduced in the waning months of Bush’s term by Rep. Dennis Kucinich. Instead, she defended her past inaction on grounds of preserving civility. Republicans had pursued an absurd impeachment against Bill Clinton for perjuring himself about an extramarital affair a decade earlier, and she was afraid of perpetuating a cycle.

“So they did it to Bill Clinton. Now they wanted me to do [it to] George B[ush],” Pelosi said Friday. “I just didn’t want it to be a way of life in our country.”

It was a perfect summary of the last forty years of U.S. politics. The Republicans launched wave upon wave of escalating partisan attacks, abusing their offices and the Constitution, including pursuing a fraudulent impeachment against the first Democrat with the temerity to win reelection since the Republican Nixon was forced to resign in disgrace. They seized the White House (through fraud), and used it to lie their way into a war that profited them, while killing hundreds of thousands of Iraqis and 4,432 U.S. troops, libeling anyone who opposed them, falsely, as “spineless” and “corrupt.”

Then the Democrats, prodded on by a thoughtless media establishment, kept soberly letting them get away with it—ensuring that the cycle got worse.

Today, thanks in part to that enabling, the Republicans are led by a criminal so blatant that literally the day after he appeared to have narrowly gotten away with a bunch of crimes, he went out and did them again. This time, even Nancy Pelosi was left with no choice but to impeach.

And yet the messaging from the political press is still those damn partisan Dems. A story bound for the front page of tomorrow’s New York Times—three bylines, two Pulitzers between them—clucks that holding the president accountable for his crimes—against his will, of course!—is “an indication of how, in a deeply polarized nation where party rules above all else, a process enshrined in the Constitution as the most consequential way to address a president’s wrongdoing has devolved into another raucous partisan brawl.”

Forget that the White House’s “refusal to engage,” as the Times misleadingly calls it, is itself obstruction of Congress and an impeachable crime. Forget that key figures in the mounting cases against the president are Republicans, from Robert Mueller and James Comey to Republican donor-turned-Trump ambassador Gordon Sondland, Tim Morrison, and Jennifer Williams, who remains an advisor to Vice President Mike Pence. Democrats are so cowed by this type of bad-faith hectoring from the press, its leading figures won’t even take a “partisan” swing, in a time that in any society of laws would be the death knell of the Republican Party entirely.

On Friday night, while Pelosi defended her principled protection of President Bush, Joe Biden—who is not only the provisional Democratic front-runner for the 2020 nomination, but the target of Trump’s illegal scheme in Ukraine—was in Iowa defending Trump’s senatorial hatchet man, Lindsey Graham, while asserting: “We need a Republican Party.”

“I'm really worried that no party should have too much power,” Biden said, by way of explanation. “You need a countervailing force.”

Again, this is not only a Democrat—Obama’s former vice president—but the very guy who Trump was illegally trying to coerce the Ukrainians into defaming, thus crippling his presidential campaign, coming out, unbidden and with no hope of public reciprocation, in defense of the very Republicans trying to destroy him. Some “partisan brawl.”

Biden and Pelosi aren’t alone. The architect of Pete Buttigieg’s campaign—Biden’s current main rival for the moderate vote in the overwhelmingly white primary state of Iowa—is Lis Smith. Until 2018, Smith was the spokeswoman for New York state’s so-called “Independent Democratic Conference,” a group of state legislators who voluntarily gave Republicans control of the state senate, in defiance of voters’ wishes, while surreptitiously profiting from the arrangement.

It’s no wonder that Buttigieg pushes Republican talking points about deficits, and stumps promoting the idea, as Dave Weigel put it, that “Republicans are people who Democrats need to do business with.”

Why are they like this? Maybe the Boomer and pre-Boomer Dems, like Biden and Pelosi, took all the wrong lessons from the years after Watergate, when Nixon’s self-destruction was papered over, six years later, with the enduring rise of the Reagan conservatives. Maybe they are still so haunted by a lifetime of Democratic losses, headlined by Nixon’s Watergate-enabled 1972 shellacking of the left-liberal George McGovern, that they are afraid of what would happen if their caucus was actually able to take power. Maybe they’re really that scared of a wealth tax.

I have a harder time explaining the brain worms infecting reporters and editors who see on the one hand a party trying to do everything possible to keep their nominal opponents’ accountability to a minimum, and on the other hand a criminal syndicate operating in the open, and declare it a value-neutral “partisan brawl.”

Maybe they’re just old habits, that will have to die hard:

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Jonathan M. Katz is a freelance journalist and author. His next book, Gangsters of Capitalism, traces the origins and contradictions of America’s empire. Follow him on Twitter @KatzOnEarth.

Photo: Charles Dharapak/AP