Had you asked a week or two ago about the mood in the Democratic Party, one of the descriptors you might have gotten was “troubled.” As they have been for so long, Democrats were divided on exactly how to approach President Trump. Should they use every available tool they could to go after him? Should they concentrate on offering ideas on issues such as health care and worker rights to present an alternative vision to the public?

Among many liberals there was dissatisfaction, even anger, with many of the party’s leaders. They were particularly frustrated with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s refusal to consider impeachment, but also with Ways and Means Committee Chairman Richard E. Neal’s snail-paced effort to maybe someday possibly get hold of Trump’s tax returns.

More broadly, Democratic voters were seeing a party defined by weakness in the face of a lawless president.

But this week, everything is different. Pelosi announced the beginning of a formal impeachment inquiry, and the number of Democrats supporting it exploded; there are now just a couple dozen House Democrats left who haven’t expressed support for the inquiry, a number that will probably be down to single digits by the end of the week.

How did things change so quickly? And what does it tell us about how parties work in 2019?

The simple answer is that the facts changed. First, we got the story of the intelligence community whistleblower, which led to the story of Trump’s phone call with the Ukrainian president, and as it became clear that Trump had pressured a foreign leader, possibly using withheld military aid as an inducement, to look for dirt on Joe Biden to help Trump’s reelection, the idea that an impeachment inquiry wasn’t warranted became impossible to sustain.

But as important as the facts are, there was also a story of intraparty tension happening behind the scenes, as progressives grew frustrated with Pelosi not only prioritizing the interests of moderate members from swing districts (sometimes called “front-liners”), but also believing the interests of those members required a light touch with Trump.

As Ryan Grim of The Intercept reported, Rep. Jamie B. Raskin (D-Md.), one of the more progressive members and also a constitutional law professor, made the case to the caucus that the tentativeness had gone too far:

But politics now mattered too, he argued, and the party’s passivity was causing real political pain for rank-and-file members of Congress, particularly those holding back support of impeachment to honor the party leadership’s opposition to it. In order to placate a small handful of front-liners — perhaps as few as seven or eight — the entire party was being dragged down and routinely humiliated by Trump’s contempt for the rule of law.
That grassroots anger was translating into primary challenges, he noted, and needlessly furious constituents.

That fury was being expressed in phone calls, emails and comments to members as they talked to voters back home — even the ones in swing districts. “It’s going to be a brutal weekend for a lot of people, especially those who haven’t spoken for impeachment,” one member told Grim.

One obvious lesson is that grass-roots organizing still matters: Politicians live in eternal fear of angry constituents, and if you can convince them that their political futures are in jeopardy, they’ll respond.

In this case, that pressure was enough to get the wavering ones to put aside whatever belief they might have had that they’d be punished for supporting an impeachment process, or that such a process would help Trump by getting his supporters riled up (an argument I’ve never bought, but that many believe).

Some of them may also be coming to an understanding that in the United States today, all politics is national. With the parties ideologically polarized and negative partisanship (hating the other party more than you love your own) a force driving every election, staking out a position opposed to most of your party won’t do you much good.

As for the Democratic presidential candidates, most of them are doing two things at once: supporting impeachment (or at least an inquiry), but not spending too much time on it. Which is appropriate for people in their position. It’s Congress’s job to exercise oversight on the president, and it’s the candidates’ job to lay out what they’d do if they took over for him in 2021. If voters in Iowa and New Hampshire aren’t asking them that many questions about it, it may be less because the voters don’t care than because they know it’s not up to the presidential candidates.

To be sure, there are plenty of Democrats still fearful that the voters will punish them if they’re too mean to Trump. That fear is the latest manifestation of an affliction from which Democrats have suffered for many decades, one that convinces them to be apologetic and timid at all times lest voters learn their true feelings.

But there are times — like now — when even the fearful find they have no choice but to take a leap.

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