A few months ago I had the chance to have a long conversation with Wyoming Representative Liz Cheney. While we disagreed on many policy issues, I could not have been more impressed with her unflinching argument that Donald Trump represented an unprecedented threat to American democracy. I was also struck by her commitment to risk her re-election, all the issues she cares about, and even physical harm, to not only vote for Trump’s impeachment but also help lead the House investigation of the Jan. 6 insurrection.
At the end of our conversation, though, I could only shake my head and ask: Liz, how could there be only one of you?
She could only shake her head back.
After all, a recent avalanche of news stories and books leaves not a shred of doubt that Trump was attempting to enlist his vice president, his Justice Department and pliant Republican state legislators in a coup d’état to stay in the White House based on fabricated claims of election fraud.
Nearly the entire G.O.P. caucus (save for Cheney and Representative Adam Kinzinger, who is also risking his all to join the Jan. 6 investigation, and a few other Republicans who defied Trump on impeachment) has shamelessly bowed to Trump’s will or decided to quietly retire.
They are all complicit in the greatest political sin imaginable: destroying faith in our nation’s most sacred process, the peaceful and legitimate transfer of power through free and fair elections. Looking at how Trump and his cult are now laying the groundwork — with new laws, bogus audits, fraud allegations and the installation of more pliant state election officials to ensure victory in 2024 no matter what the count — there is no question that America’s 245-year experiment in democracy is in real peril.
Our next presidential election could well be our last as a shining example of democracy.
Just listen to Cheney. Addressing her fellow Republicans on “60 Minutes” on Sunday, she noted that when they abet Trump’s delegitimization of the last election, “in the face of rulings of the courts, in the face of recounts, in the face of everything that’s gone on to demonstrate that there was not fraud … we are contributing to the undermining of our system. And it’s a really serious and dangerous moment because of that.”
This is Code Red. And that leads me to the Democrats in Congress.
I have only one question for them: Are you ready to risk a lot less than Liz Cheney did to do what is necessary right now — from your side — to save our democracy?
Because, when one party in our two-party system completely goes rogue, it falls on the other party to act. Democrats have to do three things at the same time: advance their agenda, protect the integrity of our elections and prevent this unprincipled Trump-cult version of the G.O.P. from ever gaining national power again.
It is a tall order and a wholly unfair burden in many ways. But if Cheney is ready to risk everything to stop Trump, then Democrats — both moderates and progressives — must rise to this moment and forge the majorities needed in the Senate and House to pass the bipartisan infrastructure bill (now scheduled for a Thursday vote in the House), a voting rights bill and as much of the Build Back Better legislation as moderate and progressives can agree on.
If the Democrats instead form a circular firing squad, and all three of these major bills get scattered to the winds and the Biden presidency goes into a tailspin — and the Trump Republicans retake the House and Senate and propel Trump back into the White House — there will be no chance later. Later will be too late for the country as we know it.
So, I repeat: Do Representative Josh Gottheimer, the leader of the centrist Democrats in the House, and Representative Pramila Jayapal, leader of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, have the guts to stop issuing all-or-nothing ultimatums and instead give each other ironclad assurances that they will do something hard?
Yes, they will each risk the wrath of some portion of their constituencies to reach a compromise on passing infrastructure now and voting rights and the Build Back Better social spending soon after — without anyone getting all that they wanted, but both sides getting a whole lot. It’s called politics.
And are centrist Democratic Senators Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema ready to risk not being re-elected the way Liz Cheney has by forging a substantive compromise to ensure that consequential election integrity, infrastructure and Build Back Better measures go forward? Or are they just the Democratic equivalents of the careerist hacks keeping Trump afloat — people so attached to their $174,000 salaries and free parking at Reagan National Airport that they will risk nothing?
And, frankly, is the Biden White House ready to forge this compromise with whatever pressures, Oval Office teas, inducements, pork and seductions are needed? It could energize the public a lot more by never referring to this F.D.R.-scale social reform package as “reconciliation” and only calling it by its actual substance: universal pre-K, home health care for the sick and elderly, lower prescription drug prices, strengthened Obamacare, cleaner energy, green jobs and easier access to college education that begins a long-overdue leveling of the playing field between the wealthy and the working class. Also, the White House needs to sell it not only to urban Democrats but to rural Republicans, who will benefit as well.
The progressives need to have the courage to accept less than they want. They also could use a little more humility by acknowledging that spending trillions of dollars at once might have some unintended effects — and far more respect for the risk-takers who create jobs, whom they never have a good word for. If Biden’s presidency is propelled forward and seen as a success for everyday Americans, Democrats can hold the Senate and House and come back for more later.
The moderates need to have the courage to give the progressives much more than the moderates prefer. Income and opportunity gaps in America helped to produce Trump; they will be our undoing if they persist.
We’re not writing the Ten Commandments here. We’re doing horse-trading. Just do it.
None of the Democratic lawmakers will be risking their careers by such a compromise, which is child’s play compared with facing the daily wrath of running for re-election in the most pro-Trump state in America, Wyoming, while denouncing Trump as the greatest threat to our democracy.
But I fear common sense may not win out. As Minnesota Democratic Representative Dean Phillips (a relative) remarked to me after Tuesday’s caucus of House Democrats: “The absence of pragmatism among Democrats is as troubling as the absence of principle among Republicans.”