For months now, many congressional Democrats have been obsessed with Russian interference in the American electoral process. That tendency was on full display this week, as they reportedly refused demands from liberals that they gum up the works of Congress in an attempt to stop the passage of TrumpCare. Their reason? That it would hinder their efforts to achieve a bipartisan deal on new Russia sanctions.
Investigation into Russian meddling is, to be clear, a vital necessity. But Democrats will not get there by an appeal to Republican patriotism — and an obsession with Russia risks obscuring a far more urgent issue, the onrushing approach of TrumpCare. Only by fighting the odious Republican agenda will Democrats get the political success necessary to get to the bottom of the Russia story.
A case in point was Attorney General Jeff Sessions' testimony Tuesday before the Senate Intelligence Committee. Through suspicious excuses, angry defiance, and evasion, Sessions revealed almost nothing of substance about the firing of FBI Director James Comey, much less possible collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia. And Republicans let him get away it.
For instance, Sessions claimed that he only recused himself from the Russia investigation to follow the letter of the regulations around federal investigations — which is nearly impossible to believe given that he recused himself the very day after The Washington Post reported that, contrary to his confirmation testimony, he had had meetings with Russian officials during the campaign. His justification of being involved in the Comey firing, which he characterized as a simple personnel matter, not anything to do with Russia, was similarly non-credible.
But more fundamentally, anytime the questions veered towards anything really sensitive about Trump, Sessions simply refused to answer. He weirdly even wavered on whether or not he was invoking executive privilege in his refusal to answer, which infuriated Sens. Angus King (I-Maine) and Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.). It seemed to my non-legal eye to border on contempt of Congress. Yet Republicans were basically happy to accommodate him.
Meanwhile, the TrumpCare bill — the House version of which will throw 23 million people off their insurance over a decade — is rushing towards a vote in the Senate. Liberals have been demanding that Senate Democrats use every procedural tool to slow down the process, but Senate Democrats have been resisting. Why? In part, because:
Top Senate D aide emails to say not going nuclear on AHCA also allows them to hammer out bipartisan Russian sanctions deal. So there's that
— Jeff Stein (@JStein_Vox) June 13, 2017
During the Bush and Obama years, referencing Peanuts' "Lucy and the football" became a shorthand in the liberal blogosphere for how Democrats continually underestimated the cynicism and deception of Republicans. Left-wing activists tried to warn of the futility of things like trying to negotiate in good faith with Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) over the Affordable Care Act, but centrist Democrats, obsessed with trying to obtain bipartisan support, refused to listen. As a result, Grassley strung them along for months, eating up weeks of precious time and making the bill markedly worse, and then voted against it anyway.
Democrats are somewhat less credulous now than they were years ago (if only because many of the most dimwitted centrists were wiped out in successive Republican wave elections). But they are still trying to appeal to norms — like the sanctity of elections — which most Republicans in office are either too corrupt or too poisoned by right-wing agitprop to actually observe, or are actively undermining themselves. Only a handful of congressional Republicans, and none in positions of high influence, seem to care at all about the integrity of America's electoral system. They might sign on to some small-bore sanctions on a foreign power. They will not impeach or remove a Republican president so long as that president continues to support Republican priorities.
Now, the idea of Russian interference in the election has gotten more credible than I initially supposed. Just recently Bloomberg reported that some 39 states found evidence of attempted penetration of their election systems (most of which are, naturally, outdated and horribly insecure) by what seem like Russian hackers. Clearly this investigation is a vital priority.
Therefore, Democrats should of course continue with Senate Intelligence Committee hearings, and watch closely to see that Special Counsel Robert Mueller can conduct his investigation properly. But they cannot rely on the slightest scrap of decency from any elected Republican to achieve this end. They must assume that every single one, from President Trump on down, is corrupt until proven otherwise.
Secondly, Democrats must realize that the best way to actually get to the bottom of the Russia story is by winning electoral victories by running against the absolutely odious Republican agenda — above all the monstrous TrumpCare bill. The Republican strategy of jamming this thing through in secret is working — it is receiving virtually no media coverage compared to when it was first introduced. But that very secretiveness reveals they understand the bill is grossly unpopular and could not be passed if it got close attention.
Democrats must shout themselves hoarse about this thing, and should it pass anyway, use it to crush them at the polls. Only then can they begin to restore and protect American democracy.