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Why 2020 Is Starting to Feel Like 2004

Sixteen years ago, leading Democrats shied away from doing the right thing. Today, they're perilously close to making the same mistake

Former Vice President Joe Biden speaks during a campaign rally in Philadelphia.  (Photo: Matt Rourke/AP Photo)

Former Vice President Joe Biden speaks during a campaign rally in Philadelphia.  (Photo: Matt Rourke/AP Photo)

On March 15, 2003, Governor Howard Dean of Vermont, at the time a decidedly second-tier presidential candidate, took the stage at the convention of the California Democratic Party. The first thing he said, to a thunderous cheer, was this: “What I want to know is what in the world so many Democrats are doing supporting the president's unilateral intervention in Iraq.” He then ran through a litany of his party’s failures to stand up to George W. Bush and the GOP, and finished with a rhetorical flourish that instantly made him a serious contender: “I’m Howard Dean, and I’m here to represent the Democratic wing of the Democratic Party.”

While Dean didn’t win the nomination, his candidacy shone a bright light on the way Democrats had become timid and fearful, always worrying that if they were too clear in their criticism of the war or the administration that the public would reject them. More important, he showed how disgusted so many in the rank-and-file were with the way their representatives had been acting, and what a hunger there was for a more forceful brand of opposition.

Back then it was Iraq, and today it’s the potential impeachment of Donald Trump.

Sixteen years later, the situation is not precisely the same, but it has some important parallels. That same fear—that if Democrats make their beliefs fully known or act too forcefully in opposing a Republican president, then the public will react against them—survives, even if it doesn’t dominate the party’s upper reaches the way it did in 2003. As they were back then, they are desperate to unseat the president, but divided on how best to do it. And on the question that dominates their internal debates, they seem to be concerned mostly with whether it’s too politically risky to do the right thing. Back then it was Iraq, and today it’s the potential impeachment of Donald Trump.

Perhaps I’m not being entirely fair to those many Democrats who voted to authorize the war in the fall of 2002. Some may have sincerely believed that it was a good idea. But coming a little over a year after September 11—and amid a constant barrage of Republican assaults on their patriotism—the fear of looking insufficiently “tough” dominated their thinking as they considered authorizing the use of force.

And it wasn’t hard to see that the Bush administration was carrying out an enormously deceptive propaganda campaign to convince the public that if we didn’t invade Iraq, at any moment they’d attack us with their fearsome arsenal of weapons of mass destruction. When Dick Cheney said, “Simply stated, there is no doubt that Saddam Hussein now has weapons of mass destruction. There is no doubt he is amassing them to use against our friends, against our allies, and against us,” there was no doubt he was lying, along with the rest of the administration.

But ambitious Democrats were certain that opposing war would be politically disastrous. So among those who voted to give the invasion the green light were future presidential candidates John Kerry, John Edwards, Dick Gephardt, Joe Lieberman, Joe Biden, and Hillary Clinton. History has not been kind to them on that score.

At the time, though, they justified their vote by arguing that the threat from Saddam was indeed a terrifying one. In stark contrast, it’s almost impossible today to find a Democrat who doesn’t agree on substantive grounds that Donald Trump deserves to be impeached. Many thought so even before Robert Mueller released the report detailing his findings, but the rest certainly do now, after Mueller laid out not only how Trump sought and welcomed help from the Russian government to win the 2016 election but the repeated attempts he made to obstruct the investigation.

And Trump adds to the grounds for impeachment on a near-daily basis. When the House Judiciary Committee approved articles of impeachment for Richard Nixon in July 1974, one of the articles cited the fact that he had “failed without lawful cause or excuse to produce papers and things as directed by duly authorized subpoenas” issued by Congress. Trump has not only done that multiple times, he has declared that he will simply refuse to comply with any and all congressional investigations of him and his administration.

There are no Democrats saying his actions don’t warrant impeachment. The ones who oppose it, or at least oppose it for now, argue that it would be politically disadvantageous for Democrats. You might or might not find their arguments persuasive (I don’t, though I’m willing to grant that no one knows for sure), but it’s hard to imagine that when the history of the Trump era is written, declining to impeach him will look like some kind of profile in courage. As I’ve argued before, the simplest moral calculus says that if Donald Trump deserves to be impeached, then Donald Trump should be impeached.

The latest California party convention happened this past weekend, and there was no one who broke out with the kind of striking criticism of their party that Howard Dean managed in 2003. That’s because there are already plenty of Democrats running for president who are not only ready to impeach Trump but are also advocating sweeping policy change. “When I lead the Democratic Party, we will not be a party that nibbles around the edges,” said Elizabeth Warren. “Our Democratic Party will be a party of bold, structural change.” In a similar vein, Pete Buttigieg said of President Trump, “He wins if we look like more of the same. Which means, surprisingly, that the riskiest thing we could do is try to play it safe.”

There was a figure they and others were not-too-subtly referencing: Joe Biden, who not only advocates a more moderate set of policy solutions but recently said that when Trump is out of the White House, “You will see an epiphany occur among many of my Republican friends,” and they’ll be ready for bipartisan governing. Biden’s friend Mitch McConnell no doubt had a good laugh at that one.

While Biden is leading the polls at the moment, you can bet that his circa-2002 approach to the Trump presidency will become an issue as the primary race goes on. The question is whether the party is fundamentally different now than it was then, and whether they’re looking for something else in their next leader.

Paul Waldman

Paul Waldman

Paul Waldman is a contributing editor for the American Prospect and the author of Being Right is Not Enough: What Progressives Must Learn From Conservative Success.

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