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Opinion Why are Democratic leaders still foot-dragging on impeachment hearings?

With parts of the House Democratic caucus pushing Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) to begin impeachment hearings, Rep. Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.) appeared on NBC’s “Meet the Press” on Sunday to address the issue. Jeffries is one of the party’s rising stars, yet he still struggled to explain Democratic leaders’ slow-going — a sign of just how poor the party leadership’s fence-straddling looks.

Host Chuck Todd kicked off the interview by asking whether Jeffries agreed with Rep. Justin Amash (R-Mich.) that the president had “engaged in impeachable conduct.” Jeffries replied, “I certainly think there’s reason to believe that there was obstruction of justice.” “If that’s the case,” Todd said, “then why aren’t you ready to start impeachment hearings?” (Remember, Democrats can start impeachment hearings without committing to an actual vote on impeachment; during Watergate, the House Judiciary Committee began its impeachment inquiry about three months before starting the impeachment process, and that was after the Senate had already held televised hearings.)

“Well, Democrats can sing and dance at the same time just like Beyoncé,” replied Jeffries, seemingly implying that his party can investigate impeachment concurrent with passing legislation. But then he explained that Democratic leaders are focusing on the party’s policy agenda. As for impeachment hearings, “We will not overreach. We will not over-investigate. We will not over-politicize that responsibility.” Later, he added that instead, “We’re going to continue to work on issues of importance to the American people” — implying that Democrats aren’t looking at impeachment because voters don’t care about it.

There’s a rather condescending view of voters here: They can focus on only one topic at a time. The truth is that voters, to borrow’s Jeffries’s phrasing, “can sing and dance” too. Just last year, when Democrats won back the House, candidates were successful talking about pocketbook issues with voters while national news was crowded with Trump White House scandals and Democrats calling for investigations. There’s no evidence to suggest that voters’ minds have suddenly atrophied. Under Pelosi’s leadership, House Democrats have passed about 50 bills on drug prices, preexisting conditions and other key issues. Voters will notice those accomplishments, just as they noticed Republicans’ unsuccessful attacks on Obamacare in the last Congress.

Besides, waiting for voters to back impeachment hearings is a recipe for inaction. As I wrote last week, during the Watergate scandal, public support for impeachment consistently trailed events. Before the televised Watergate hearings began in May 1973, fewer than one-third of Americans thought the break-in a serious scandal, even though the burglars’ ties to the White House and the Nixon campaign had already been extensively reported. After the hearings, 53 percent thought the scandal serious, and 71 percent thought Nixon at least somewhat culpable. Yet even then, it wasn’t until the month Nixon resigned that a majority of the public supported his removal from office.

Perhaps House Democratic leaders have nonpolitical reasons for slow-walking on impeachment. Perhaps some are less convinced of Trump’s wrongdoing than they want to say publicly. Perhaps they agree with those who argue that — contra the Mueller report — obstruction statutes do not apply to the president. (One also wonders whether the various committee chairs are reluctant about centralizing the investigations into one impeachment hearing for another reason: After years in the minority, they don’t want to lose the power of running their own investigations.)

But the establishment’s argument, that impeachment will distract voters from Democrats’ agenda and/or that the House should wait until the public supports impeachment hearings to move forward, is utter bunk.

If Democrats truly believe that the president has committed impeachable offenses, start holding those hearings. Saying “we won’t let [Trump’s actions] stand” while also saying “we are in fact-gathering mode right now” is a dangerous tightrope to walk, and Democrats can’t walk it forever. Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.), interviewed after Jeffries, cut to the heart of the matter: “This is not about 2020 election. It’s about doing what’s right now for our country. This is going to be a precedent that we set when we don’t hold this president accountable.” She’s right.

Read more:

James Downie: Mitt Romney’s spine is missing in action again

Paul Waldman: Let’s be honest: Nobody knows how impeachment would turn out

Marc A. Thiessen: Americans don’t want Congress to impeach, but Democrats aren’t listening

Megan McArdle: Here’s why you shouldn’t expect impeachment anytime soon

Jennifer Rubin: Americans may be persuadable on impeachment