Republicans and nervous Democrats would have us believe that Democrats must choose a single approach in the face of President Trump’s multifaceted wrongdoing. Nope.
The House can hold investigative hearings — calling Robert S. Mueller III, Donald McGahn, Hope Hicks and others — without yet making a decision to pursue impeachment of Trump. At the same time, the House can subpoena Attorney General William P. Barr and hold him in contempt if he refuses to appear and produce the full Mueller report. The House can also, if Barr still refuses and further instructs the U.S. attorney not to enforce a contempt finding in court, pursue impeachment of Barr. Too much going on at once? Well, that never stopped Trump.
None of this precludes the House from moving forward on popular legislation. To prove the point, Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) visited the White House to talk about an infrastructure bill with Trump. And that activity doesn’t impede Pelosi’s ability to slam Trump for trying to wipe out the Affordable Care Act, which is precisely what she did on Wednesday. (“Today, the Trump Administration is continuing Republicans’ monstrous campaign to destroy pre-existing condition protections and Americans’ access to affordable health care,” she said in response to the administration’s brief in the Fifth Circuit seeking to strike down the entire ACA.)
Regardless of what Congress does, Democratic presidential candidates can run on their own forward-looking agendas. All the House investigations in the world don’t interfere with Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s ability to churn out intricate policy plans on a regular basis. (She has plenty of time to demand that Barr resign or be impeached.) Former vice president Joe Biden can simultaneously excoriate Trump for his Charlottesville remarks, provoke a presidential meltdown by getting the endorsement of a single union and suggesting his own reforms (e.g. a $15 minimum wage, a public option for a Medicare buy-in).
Now, it is true that a presidential campaign needs a coherent message, but calling for Barr’s resignation doesn’t negate Warren’s “the system is rigged” message nor take away from Sen. Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.), who is advancing her “For the People” message. (Indeed, Harris’s winning performance at the Barr hearing seems to reinforce her theme. She tweeted, “I’m running for president because the American people deserve truth and integrity from their elected leaders. That’s not what we’re getting right now.”)
One gets the feeling that Democrats are far too concerned that rigorous pursuit of Trump’s wrongdoing will detract from winning messages on health care, the environment and income inequality. For one thing, the former helps enliven their base, and for another, Democrats risk tolerating worse and worse behavior if they show skittishness over pursuing their oversight functions. (We already see Barr testing the House by refusing to show up for a hearing.)
There is another benefit for Democrats in pursuing a full-court press on both substance and scandal: the Senate. As House bills pile up outside the Senate chamber (because Sen. Mitch McConnell won’t bring them up for votes), the GOP-controlled Senate refuses even to investigate obvious wrongdoing and Republican senators make fools of themselves slobbering over Trump and his Cabinet officials (as they did with Barr), the portrait of craven, spineless enablers becomes more vivid. They won’t pass bills. They won’t do real oversight. They won’t insist on truth-telling from witnesses. The more reasons they give voters to oppose sycophantic senators, the more likely a flip in control of the Senate becomes.
Democrats therefore shouldn’t reject the political gifts they have been given. Trump’s surplus of scandals and unpopular policy positions shouldn’t limit Democrats’ avenues of attack. To the contrary, they should advance on all fronts.