When I was in the Peace Corps, I once visited Coffee Bay in Eastern Cape, South Africa with some friends. There some of us swam out to Hole-in-the-Wall, a bizarre sort of tidal butte with an arch in the middle. The butte forms an island, but the arch opens straight to the south Atlantic, where the surf is usually quite heavy.
Once on the island it was hard to get off, as the shore rocks were slick and covered with sharp barnacles. Most of us calculated the thing to do was to run and jump far out into the water. But one party member tried to slide in from the edge, and sure enough, the surging water sloshed them up on the rocks, where a barnacle gouged their leg.
Luckily, it was only a small cut. But this illustrates an important lesson: the difference between caution and timidity. Sometimes the cautious, small-c conservative approach is also the aggressive one. Conversely, sometimes being slow and timorous is highly risky. It's a lesson the Democratic Party in general, and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi in particular, could badly stand to learn.
Pelosi is still mobilizing furiously to quash talk of impeaching President Trump, ginning up ever-more-ludicrous excuses in the process. She has argued that Trump is "not worth it" (suggesting he's too corrupt to be impeached? what?), argued that "saving our democracy" is somehow more important (thus ruling out the constitutionally-obligated mechanism for doing just that when faced with a corrupt president), and said that Democrats were not headed for impeachment because that's where Trump "wants us to be." After Robert Mueller publicly stated that "the Constitution requires a process other than the criminal justice system to formally accuse a sitting president of wrongdoing" — obviously referring to impeachment — she stated that: "You don't bring an impeachment unless you have all the facts" (a blatantly false characterization, as holding hearings and gathering evidence is half the point of an impeachment inquiry).
And when House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn (a close Pelosi ally) said it was only a matter of time before impeachment proceedings begin, Pelosi held a closed meeting with party leadership and clearly yanked him back. Afterwards he said, "I'm probably farther away from impeachment than anybody in our caucus." Most recently, she worried in a Democratic meeting that the public doesn't understand how impeachment works.
The motivation here is clearly fear. A recent CNN poll found that "54 percent of voters nationally do not want to impeach and remove the President from office, while just 41 percent of them do," while people "strongly against impeaching and removing the President from office outnumber the strongly for impeaching and removing the President from office crowd by 45 percent to 36 percent." Pelosi and company are no doubt thinking of the Clinton impeachment, which backfired politically for Republicans, at least in the short term. And Democrats have almost no bipartisan cover, with only Rep. Justin Amash (R-Mich.) speaking out from across the aisle — far more clearly and coherently than Pelosi, incidentally.
But this cringing attitude ignores two things. First, impeachment is clearly what the Constitution demands for a president as wildly corrupt and lawless as Trump. Article II, Section 4 contains no "unless the House is scared of a political backlash" exception. Second, an impeachment inquiry itself can build support for the process. Early in the Nixon impeachment, only 19 percent of Americans thought he should be removed from office. But as the media paid close attention to the scandal, and his crimes were made clear to the public, that built steadily to 57 percent. Seeing the relevance of that comparison, however, (rather than Clinton, whose impeachment was clearly motivated by sheer partisan hatred) takes courage and confidence which are in short supply among today's Democratic leaders.
This sort of fear can also clearly be seen in the wide lead that Joe Biden continues to hold in the Democratic primary. Given Biden's age, tremendous baggage, and appalling policy record, perceived electability is the only possible rationale for a Biden nomination. As The New Republic's Alex Pareene points out, he is "a man who was already too out-of-step with the party and the country to win the nomination 12 years ago." It's true, Biden leads Trump in head-to-head polls — but so did Hillary Clinton for almost the whole 2016 campaign. Do Democrats really want a guy who deliberately cuts back on campaigning in order to limit his opportunities to say something stupid? Judging by the lackluster attendance at his rallies, Biden's support is clearly rooted in a panicked desire to get rid of Trump, whatever the cost.
Despite the learned helplessness that has been carefully inculcated in the Democratic base over the years, the country is very obviously crying out for someone to stand up to Trump — somebody with bold and aggressive courage. Providing a check on him and his party's power is surely among the top reasons why Democrats won the 2018 midterms. Pelosi is right now the most powerful Democrat in the country. But she is hesitating and dithering, apparently hoping the voters will do her job for her by turfing Trump out of office — as Democrats plainly hoped Mueller would do before his report came out and he put the onus back on them. Meanwhile, Trump's lawlessness, not meeting any counter-force, is only expanding.
When confronted with a dangerous situation, retreating into timidity and going slow can seem easier in the short term. It's psychologically difficult to will oneself into a bold stance, even if it is rationally the less risky thing to do. But wise leadership requires that ability. It's time for Democrats to take the leap.