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The Political Education of the Security Democrats

Capitol Hill on Tuesday was a curiously static place. The impeachment of the President was just a day away, and yet there were no protests, for or against. A dense, gray-white bank of fog settled so low over the Capitol that it covered even the Statue of Freedom atop the building, making the Hill feel even more secluded and cut off. At their caucus meeting that morning the Democrats had only briefly discussed the impeachment vote. With a few known exceptions, the members of the House would vote with their parties. The mood was at once momentous and tension-free. The Democrats would vote to impeach the President, and the Republicans would vote against it. No one was trying to persuade, because persuasion seemed impossible.

Among the last Democrats to announce their support for impeachment was a group of seven freshmen—the “national-security Democrats.” All seven have records of intelligence or military service, and all of them won in 2018 in previously Republican districts. On September 23rd, the group—Elaine Luria and Abigail Spanberger, of Virginia, Mikie Sherrill, of New Jersey, Gil Cisneros, of California, Chrissy Houlahan, of Pennsylvania, Jason Crow, of Colorado, and Elissa Slotkin, of Michigan—jointly published an op-ed in the Washington Post, declaring that, if the allegations that President Trump solicited foreign interference in the 2020 election were correct, “we believe these actions represent an impeachable offense.” Their statement turned the Democrats decisively toward impeachment. The Speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi, announced a formal impeachment inquiry the day after the op-ed was published; she has said that she began taking notes for her speech as she read the piece, on a plane to Washington.

The impeachment inquiry, as it unfolded, this fall, did not stray from the security Democrats’ concerns: it was not broadly about the President’s corruption but narrowly about his efforts to pressure the Ukrainian government to help him win reëlection. The stars of last month’s impeachment hearings were foreign-policy professionals—Marie Yovanovitch, Fiona Hill, Alexander Vindman, William Taylor, George Kent—whose persistent work to keep Ukrainian democracy on track made for a poignant contrast with the President’s personal emissaries’ flailing efforts to bend the government in Kyiv toward him. There was an obvious political advantage to leading with the national-security Democrats’ earnest and even quaint concerns, about duty and sacrifice and oaths. It was the Democrats’ best guess at the principles that they and their Republican colleagues might still share, when nothing else seemed to do the trick.

On Tuesday afternoon, I visited Crow at his Washington office. A forty-year-old lawyer who served three tours in Iraq and Afghanistan as a platoon leader in the 82nd Airborne, Crow conveys a serious, almost pained sense of responsibility. When he was asked on CNN this week what he would say to persuade Colorado’s Republican senator, Cory Gardner, Crow said that he would tell him to remember his oaths. “There are some of my colleagues on the other side of the aisle who have service backgrounds, and I’ve had conversations with them where I’ve been very clear about what I think the right thing is to do for the country,” he told me. It didn’t sound like those conversations had established much common ground. The trouble was that “we’re not operating off the same set of information anymore,” Crow said. “I’m not going to be able to solve from my perch here the media challenge.” It left him talking about shared sacrifice to only half of the country. Crow said, “I do think, you know, long, long term, history will certainly treat those who do the right thing favorably.” The long, long term sounded very far away.

The contrast between the chyron-assisted intensity of impeachment on the cable networks and the hushed atmosphere on the Hill this week suggested an event made for a television audience. Or, really, two television audiences, each with its own protagonists and themes. The divide between the two parties begins at the most basic, demographic level—ninety per cent of House Republicans are white men, while, among Democrats, the figure is less than forty per cent—but, during the final debate of impeachment on Wednesday, it appeared at every other level, too. Democrats talked sometimes about the facts of the Ukraine scandal, but more often about first principles like patriotism and democracy, while Republicans talked angrily about process—that it had been closed off and partisan from the outset, that the President had no chance to make his case. Interesting figures flattened into generic ones. Tom Cole, the veteran Republican congressman from Oklahoma, who wrote a doctoral thesis on a working-class enclave of London and spent much of his career fighting for the Native Americans in his home state, said that the process had been “unfair and rushed.” Representative Will Hurd, of Texas—a former C.I.A. officer and a frequent Trump critic, and the lone black Republican in the House—warned that Democrats were setting a “dangerous precedent” that risked turning impeachment into a “weaponized political tool.” Speaking times were as short as thirty seconds, so that none of the House members had time to respond to one another’s points.

Shortly before the vote, Steny Hoyer, the Democratic House Majority Leader, from Maryland, appealed directly to Republicans, urging them to recognize that the republic must defend itself. “We have seen Republican courage throughout our history, from the Civil War to the Cold War,” Hoyer said. “Each man, each woman must look into their own soul.” At times, some Republicans interrupted Hoyer by jeering. Obnoxious as that was, it also made an obvious point: the parties shared so little that Hoyer’s earnest efforts at outreach drifted into impossibly vague abstractions. Stay with your party and you had votes, donations, support for your favored initiatives. Break with it, and what was Hoyer offering? Just metaphysical stuff. An inner conviction of courage. Some satisfaction in your soul. The vote was a victory for Democrats, and an expression of their electoral triumph in the 2018 midterms, but it sounded as if they were grieving something, while Republicans were preparing for war.

Thursday in Washington, the last day before Congress left town for the holidays and the first with the President having been impeached, was clear and freezing. A frenetic series of votes was scheduled—most notably, on the U.S.M.C.A., the trade deal that would replace NAFTA—which suggested a very different Congress than the one that had grown so entrenched and embittered about impeachment. In the midst of all this, I stopped by to see Representative Chrissy Houlahan, a former Air Force officer who represents a newly blue district outside of Philadelphia. “What’s been really fascinating for a neophyte and a freshman like me is to see the kind of cognitive dissonance that happened here this week,” she told me. The place was indisputably broken, and it was also, in a different sense, humming along just fine. Houlahan mentioned the bills that were passing that week, which included not only the U.S.M.C.A. but also tax reforms (which would help residents of wealthy blue states) and a $1.4 trillion spending package to avert a government shutdown. “These are huge, huge things that have been people’s life’s work coming together, and in the middle of all that there was the impeachment vote,” she said. “It’s kind of hard to contain in your brain all at one time.”

When I interviewed several of the national-security Democrats in September, I’d found Houlahan the most obviously distressed by the notion that the country was being torn apart. That remained true. “I’m just really alarmed by where we’ve devolved to as a people, and what behaviors are permissible,” she told me on Thursday. But she also sounded like she’d begun to accommodate herself to it.

“I know that what I did in my vote and in my actions is hurtful. I know that it was divisive,” she said, of impeachment. There would be long-term consequences, “for the next Administration and for how will we pull ourselves together and trust each other,” she said. “But it had to happen, you know. I had to take this vote. It was my oath to do the right thing, to look at the evidence and to make a hard call.”

An hour later, I met Representative Elaine Luria, a former Navy commander who won a formerly Republican seat in greater Virginia Beach. Thinking back over the fall, she said that it had seemed that it might be possible to persuade some Republicans to turn on the President. “When Lieutenant Colonel Vindman spoke, I thought, This is going to be the day. You have an Army lieutenant colonel, wearing a Purple Heart,” she said. “How can anyone not take what he says at face value and respect his service and respect his physical sacrifice?” Of course, that was not what had happened, as Republicans suggested that Vindman, who emigrated from Kyiv as a child, could have dual loyalty to Ukraine. Luria said, “To see people attacking him, I just thought, My God, where have we sunk as a country?”

Luria is a centrist. She belongs to three bipartisan caucuses, and she said that they tend to function pretty well. “I guess what’s confusing about it is a lot of people who are arguing against impeachment are just denying the facts,” Luria said. “Some people, in these hearings and in their public statements, have gone so far as to say a phone call didn’t even happen. That’s absurd. Or, if a phone call happened, nothing was done wrong, he never asked Ukraine to investigate the Bidens. He said he did, his personal lawyer said he did, the transcript he released said he did, and he stood on the White House lawn and said, ‘Ukraine, please investigate, and, while you’re at it, China you should investigate, too.’ This is all public knowledge.” She went on, “And so what’s incredibly confusing to me is how that has been an effective argument in compelling some people—to say it didn’t even happen.”

This seemed to be where the long impeachment episode had left the new centrist Democrats: with the realization that, although their politics required Republican negotiating partners, they could only intermittently count on Republicans’ good faith. Last week, Luria had stood behind the President while he signed an executive order on anti-Semitism. During the impeachment hearing, she recounted that she had said, “I stood with the President in the White House last week, but I’m standing up to him in this House today. That sounds a little cliché, but you only have one minute.” Meanwhile, conservative groups were running ads targeting her on impeachment. “I didn’t think, like, Oh, my gosh, I can’t do this because it’s risky for my reëlection,” Luria said, of her vote for impeachment. “I mean, no shit!” She was grinning; this was just politics. “It’s risky for me in a Republican district, no matter whether this happened or not.”



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