Friday, June 28, 2019

Speed sniping in Miami:
The second Democratic debate

BEFORE WE knew who the players would be, there was the temptation to call the first night of a multi-night Democratic debate series “the undercard.” This year’s was different. With its own singular mix of progressive, mainstream and established political personalities, the first debate at the Adrienne Arsht Performing Arts Center had a weight, a velocity of its own. Depending on what you were looking for in a prospective candidate, the undercard could have been the main event.

But there’s no getting around it: On the basis of polling response, donations raised and name recognition, Thursday night held more of the heaviest hitters in the 2020 presidential campaign. And the principals — Joe Biden, Bernie Sanders, Pete Buttigieg, Kamala Harris, Michael Bennet, Andrew Yang, Kirsten Gillibrand, Marianne Williamson, Eric Swalwell and John Hickenlooper — all knew that a lot was at stake.

So the gloves came off early on Thursday night. Health care was an early and frequent target of opportunity. Hickenlooper, the former Colorado governor not given much of a chance, still struck a clear note that Democratic leadership should pay attention to: how the little matter of the party’s self-identification matters moving forward into the teeth of the campaign.

◊ ◊ ◊

“Well, I think that the bottom line is, if we don’t clearly define that we are not socialists, the Republicans are going to come at us every way they can and—and call us socialists,” Hickenlooper said.

“And if you look at the Green New Deal, which I admire the sense of urgency and how important it is to do climate change, I’m a scientist, but we can’t promise every American a government job if you want to get universal healthcare coverage. I believe that healthcare is a right and not a privilege, but you can’t expect to eliminate private insurance for 180 million people, many of whom don’t want to give it up.”

Williamson brought the pithy: “We don’t have a health care system in the United States. We have a sickness care system in the United States.”

And Vice President Biden answered the bell on health care with a full-throated defense of his role in Obamacare:

“Look, this is very personal to me. When my wife and daughter were killed in an automobile accident my two boys were really very badly injured. I couldn’t imagine what it’d be like had I not had adequate healthcare available immediately. And then when my son came home from Iraq after a year he was diagnosed with terminal cancer and he was given months to live. I can’t fathom what would have happened if, in fact, they said by the way the last six months of your life you’re on your own. We’re cutting off. You’ve used up your time.

◊ ◊ ◊

“The fact of the matter is that the quickest, fastest way to do it is build on Obamacare, to build on what we did,” Biden said. “And secondly, secondly, to make sure that everyone does have an option. Everyone, whether they have private insurance, employer insurance or no insurance, they, in fact, can buy into the exchange to a Medicare-like plan.

“And the way you do that, you can do it quicker — look, urgency matters. There’s people right now facing what I’ve faced and what we’ve faced without any of the help I had. We must move now.”

Points. But that was about as good as it got for Biden. A debate performance that was to that point tolerable, not exactly a barn-burner but survivable, quickly turned into something else.

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YOU DON’T HAVE to be a high-school debating champion to know better than to violate one of the cardinal rules of all debates: Never undercut yourself. Never concede the stage you’re on by telling the audience “my time’s up. I’m sorry.”

You’re especially advised not to do that when you’re a septuagenarian politician already accused of being out of step with a newly assertive chunk of the electorate — an electorate that, in the main, views the defeat of Donald Trump as nothing less than a prime directive.

Joe Biden ran afoul of that central law of rhetoric and presidential politics. By accident, he took the center square on the second night, and took up oxygen and time better used by the other candidates, who took shots at building policy bona fides in fits and starts.

◊ ◊ ◊

Some worked better than others: Bennet had the courage to resist the Medicare-for-all diktat solidifying in the Dems’ leftmost precincts. Bennet agreed that health care is a right, one realized and enhanced by “finishing the work we started with Obamacare and creating a public option, a choice – I believe we will get there more quickly if we do that.”

Buttigieg similarly pushed back against the evolving trend toward student debt forgiveness, saying that students should pay some of their debt. “It also needs to be more affordable to not go to college.” He’d also raise minimum wage to at least 15 dollars.

Some didn’t work at all: Eric Swalwell, late getting into this thing, didn’t really bring much of substance beyond a pledge to make family reunification a day-one action item. There were weak invocations of Kennedyesque oratory, aimed at Biden (“Pass the torch!” he kept saying). And by plugging his policy prescription of giving everyone in the country $1,000, Andrew Yang has secured his role as the Herman Cain of the 2020 cycle, wasting an opportunity to put a lot more flesh on those bones.

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BUT IT CAME down on Biden and Harris to crank up the energy in the room, with a memorable exchange, one likely to go down in modern political history as a pivot point moment — the flashpoint instance when one style of American politics first fully, sharply came into its ascendancy, while another style of that politics began an irrevocable decline.

Harris scored the former vice president for his past associations with Herman Talmadge and segregationists during Biden's time in the Senate. And it deserves to be digested in its entirety, in text and in video. The careful reader or viewer will notice that, wrapped inside Harris’ painful American reverie is a recognition — and celebration — of contemporary Democratic party values, and what the party stands for, and what the Democrats need to double down on in 2010.

KAMALA HARRIS: Okay. So, on the issue of race, I couldn’t agree more that this is an issue that is still not being talked about truthfully and honestly. I—there is not a black man I know, be he a relative, a friend or a coworker who has not been the subject of some form of profiling or discrimination. Growing up, my sister and I had to deal with the neighbor who told us her parents couldn’t play with us because she—because we were black. And I will say also that—that in this campaign, we’ve also heard—and I’m going to now direct this to Vice President Biden. I do not believe you are a racist and I agree with you when you commit yourself to the importance of finding common ground.

BIDEN: Mm-hmm.

Thursday, June 27, 2019

Speed dating in Miami: The first Democratic debate

WHEN THE smoke cleared after the first Democratic debate on Wednesday night, once the after-action reports came in from the Adrienne Arsht Performing Arts Center, it was clear the first firefight in a long campaign was pretty much the rhetorical bullet festival everyone expected.

But there were some notable exceptions — survivors that many observers thought were finished. Anything can happen: that unavoidable takeaway from the first candidates’ debate, on Tuesday, should be a signal for the next debate round, on Thursday.

In the raw, unscripted punch-ups of a crowded pre-primary campaign, another kind of conflict is in play: With the first debate in the books, it’s clear that candidates are sharpening their distinctions one from another. So far, this hasn’t warfare as much as it is speed dating among rivals for the electorate’s heart and the media’s attention.

◊ ◊ ◊

The first 10 in the tank – New Jersey Senator Cory Booker. former Housing Secretary Julian Castro, New York City Mayor Bill De Blasio, former Maryland Rep. John Delaney, Hawaii Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar, former Texas Rep. Beto O’Rourke, Ohio Rep. Tim Ryan, and Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren — brought their A games, or tried to. Some of them, those who literally had nothing to lose, went above and beyond, admirably carrying the fire to opponents. Others not so much.

But right from the start, you could tell things were teed up for Warren on opening night. As the undeniable star of the first tranche of candidates vis-à-vis polling and fundraising, the senator from Massachusetts was in the center square. She rose to the occasion, coming out swinging with a sharp distillation of her ethos and her principles, and even some of her policy prescriptions.

SAVANNAH GUTHRIE, NBC: You have many plans — free college, free child care, government health care, cancellation of student debt, new taxes, new regulations, the breakup of major corporations. But this comes at a time when 71 percent of Americans say the economy is doing well, including 60 percent of Democrats. What do you say to those who worry this kind of significant change could be risky to the economy?

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WARREN: So I think of it this way. Who is this economy really working for? It’s doing great for a thinner and thinner slice at the top. It’s doing great for giant drug companies. It’s just not doing great for people who are trying to get a prescription filled.

It’s doing great for people who want to invest in private prisons, just not for the African-Americans and Latinos whose families are torn apart, whose lives are destroyed, and whose communities are ruined.

It’s doing great for giant oil companies that want to drill everywhere, just not for the rest of us who are watching climate change bear down upon us.

When you’ve got a government, when you’ve got an economy that does great for those with money and isn’t doing great for everyone else, that is corruption, pure and simple. We need to call it out. We need to attack it head on. And we need to make structural change in our government, in our economy, and in our country.

◊ ◊ ◊

Klobuchar was next, with ideas about education and student debt. “We know that not everyone is sharing in this prosperity. And Donald Trump just sits in the White House and gloats about what’s going on, when you have so many people that are having trouble affording college and having trouble affording their premiums.

“So I do get concerned about paying for college for rich kids, I do,” she said. “But I think my plan is a good one. And my plan would be to, first of all, make community college free and make sure that everyone else besides that top percentile gets help with their education. ...

“Secondly, I’d used Pell grants. I’d double them from $6,000 to $12,000 a year and expand it to the number of families that get covered, to families that make up to $100,000. And then the third thing I would do is make it easier for students to pay off their student loans. Because I can tell you this: If billionaires can pay off their yachts, students should be able to pay off their student loans.”

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IT WAS NOT a good night for O’Rourke, regardless of what his handlers and adjutants say. The former Texas phenom from Texas seemed off his game from almost the beginning, speaking in platitudes. His delivery seems wooden, predictable, and off-script. Consider this exchange with NBC’s Savannah Guthrie:

GUTHRIE: ... [S]ome Democrats want a marginal individual tax rate of 70 percent on the very highest earners, those making more than $10 million a year. Would you support that? And if not, what would your top individual rate be?

O’ROURKE: This economy has got to work for everyone. And right now, we know that it isn’t. And it’s going to take all of us coming together to make sure that it does —

O’Rourke then begins speaking in Spanish — presumably the words he’d just spoken in English — and then back to English:

O’ROURKE: Right now, we have a system that favors those who can pay for access and outcomes. That’s how you explain an economy that is rigged to corporations and to the very wealthiest. A $2 trillion tax cut that favored corporations while they were sitting on record piles of cash and the very wealthiest in this country at a time of historic wealth inequality.

A new democracy that is revived because we’ve returned power to the people, no PACs, no gerrymandering, automatic and same-day voter registration to bring in more voters, and a new Voting Rights Act to get rid of the barriers that are in place now…

GUTHRIE: Congressman O’Rourke…

O’ROURKE: That’s how we each have a voice in our democracy and make this economy work for everybody.

GUTHRIE: Congressman, that’s time, sir. I’ll give you 10 seconds to answer if you want to answer the direct question. Would you support a 70 percent individual marginal tax rate? Yes, no, or pass?

O’ROURKE: I would support a tax rate and a tax code that is fair to everyone. Tax capital at the same right…

Wednesday, June 26, 2019

Duty, honor, country, subpoena

IN ALL THE noisy anticipation of the first Democratic candidates debate, it almost slipped off the radar, almost: On Tuesday, June 25, House Democrats announced that, after two years of working, silent as the Sphinx, toward completion of the ominously eponymous Mueller Report, the former special counsel Robert S. Mueller III will finally come from behind the curtain and speak to the American people, in his own voice, on July 17th at 9 a.m. at the Rayburn House Office Building in Washington, D.C.

The heretofore quietest man in Washington is breaking his two-year silence (minus 9-1/2 minutes) with what amounts to a Robert Mueller Residency: two appearances the same day, before the House Judiciary and Intelligence Committees. It might be (as he’s already promised) the rhetorical equivalent of watching paint dry, but the country needs to hear it just the same.

The previous standout Marine officer has previously said he didn’t want to do it. In his short public statement in May, Mueller stepped outside his cone of silence and said any testimony before Congress “would not go beyond our report.”

“It contains our findings and analysis and the reasons for the decisions we made,” Mueller said. “We chose those words carefully, and the work speaks for itself. And the report is my testimony. I would not provide information beyond that which is already public in any appearance before Congress.”

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Nope. Not good enough, and it shouldn’t have been good enough. Mueller’s solemn attempt to immunize himself from direct testimony was rebuffed by Representatives Jerrold Nadler of New York and Adam B. Schiff of California, the chairmen of the committees.

They wrote Mueller a letter that was respectful but insistent. “The American public deserves to hear directly from you about your investigation and conclusions,” they wrote. “We will work with you to address legitimate concerns about preserving the integrity of your work, but we expect that you will appear before our committees as scheduled.”

Frankly, Mueller should’ve known: With as much attention paid and importance attached to the 448-page saga released to the world on April 18, there was no way for him to bow out quietly, settling into the emeritus identity of a hierophant ghost, someone glimpsed at far tables through windows of the best restaurants in Georgetown. The report is too important for that. Its conclusions, such as they are, require flesh and blood and voice to resonate the way Mueller hopefully intended.

To do that, in an image-drunk, post-postmodern society, it demands the visual, the compression, the drama of live testimony. Just as the quirks and complexities of Watergate needed the distillation of Sam Ervin’s gavel and John Dean’s cancer metaphor, this scandal, no less a big constitutional deal than Watergate was, needs airing where the American people live: on the air.

◊ ◊ ◊

IRONICALLY, the fact of Mueller’s testimony itself will be as compelling as the content of whatever he’ll say. The former special counsel could sit before the House Judiciary and Intelligence Committees and read excerpts of “Green Eggs and Ham,” a la Ted Cruz on the Senate floor in 2013. It almost wouldn’t matter. The fact that he testifies at all — against his own personal preference — is what matters.

His planned appearance reinforces the necessary power of the institution of Congress and the tools, or the weapons if you like, at its disposal in the pursuit of what’s in the national interest. His preference not to testify is of no consequence, no more valid for him than it would have been for any of the 500 witnesses needed to complete the report.

It’s a low-down ironic shame that Mueller’s appearance before the House committees required a subpoena to make it happen. The man who spent two years communicating the idea — the principle — that no one is above the law — discovers that no one is above a subpoena. This is not a res ipsa loquitur moment.

Rep. Justin Amash, the lone congressional Republican backing impeachment, said it plain as day, cut to the nut of why it matters to him: "I want to hear him tell the story to the American people.”

So be it in 22 days. Sooner or later, every story demands to hear its author, out loud.

Image credits: Mueller: Charles Dharapak/Associated Press.

Pecking disorder: Diversity, inclusion
and the Democratic debates

THE CRAZY quilt lineups for the first two Democratic presidential debates, in Miami, June 26 and 27, are already instructive in a constructive way, without a word said by anyone. With frontrunners cheek to jowl with also-rans and walking rounding errors, the debates on Wednesday and Thursday will be a raucous, panoramic example of democracy at its best, or certainly its most wide open.

For starters, this time there’s no undercard, no kid’s table, like we had in the Ring cycle of primary debates in 2016. The demographic hurly-burly of modern America is boiled down into two debates that promise to be a jumble of styles and substances.

Fight Night #1

Cory Booker
Julian Castro
Amy Klobuchar
Elizabeth Warren
Beto O’Rourke
Tulsi Gabbard
Bill De Blasio
Tim Ryan
Jay Inslee
John Delaney

Fight Night #2

Joe Biden
Bernie Sanders
Pete Buttigieg
Kamala Harris
Michael Bennet
Andrew Yang
Kirsten Gillibrand
Marianne Williamson
Eric Swalwell
John Hickenlooper

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Say what you will, the 20 candidates who made the cut are a diverse bunch. Nobody's likely to point a #CandidatesSoWhiteMale hashtag at this crowd. The breadth of this field of dreamers, it's 31-flavors aspect suggest that interest for both debates should be strong, even at this early point in the process. There's someone for everybody to love and hate. That's as basic to participatory democracy as you can get.

But the process of elimination has been brutal, as such things usually are. The Democratic National Committee selected the debate candidates using a qualifying threshold of 1 percent in three recognized opinion, and donations from 65,000 donors in the early primary states. That's a threshold that seems reasonable, at first blush; if you can' t get 1 percent in polls responding to you as a presidential candidate, what chance do you really have in the first place?

DNC Chairman Tom Perez recently defended it in just those terms. "They had a lot of time. A 1 percent bar, I think, is a fair bar. It’s hard to get a lower bar than 1 percent,” Perez said on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe.” “We gave folks a fair shake. We set forth these rules. I think they're fair. They're unprecedentedly inclusive, and 10 people is enough to manage.”

◊ ◊ ◊

BUT THIS approach to populating both debates has made for unexpected survivors and victims of the DNC winnowing process. Self-help author and Oprah confidante Marianne Williamson, a long shot for sure, got into the second-night debate. Four others -- Montana governor Steve Bullock, Miramar, Fla. mayor Wayne Messam, former Alaska senator Mike Gravel and Massachusetts Rep. Seth Moulton -- didn't make the cut for either night in Miami, failing to hit the threshold for inclusion. With states like historically conservative Montana and always-in-play Florida at stake next year, you’d think the DNC might have been more strategic in the criteria used to decide who made the cut.

At least two of the candidates bounced from the first two debates are angling for another shot, at one of the later debates later in the summer. If the field were smaller, that would be more of an issue, and a bigger percentage of the whole.

As it is, a field this big means that, for candidates who missed the first debates, a second shot is possible, if others who’ll be on the stage this week don’t catch fire. Improbable but true: Despite the metrical ruthlessness of the process, being bounced out of the early debates gives Bullock, Moulton, Messam and Gravel nothing less than a second chance to make a first impression.

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“Debates are important but they're not the be-all and end-all,” Democratic strategist Jesse Ferguson told the Washington Examiner. “Any of these candidates can find the moment where they catch on in a Cedar Rapids union hall or a Nashua dinner if they find an authentic narrative that resonates with voters and shows why they're the antidote to Trump.”

That’s why Messam has vowed to soldier on. “I’m still encouraged and I still have an opportunity to qualify for the July debates and full steam ahead,” he told the Sun-Sentinel in a telephone interview from Las Vegas.

It's no doubt that not making either debate is especially galling for Messam, mayor of a city not far from Miami, where the event goes down. But his willingness to stay in the race despite the uphill topography he faces shows his faith in democracy’s constant bedfellow — hope.

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THAT’S WHAT any aspirant to the White House gets if they’re serious, that prerequisite of presidential politics, American democracy, and the human condition: If you want to achieve what you've never achieved, you've got to be what you've never been.

Some in the punditocracy have suggested that the Democratic candidates now polling poorly shouldn't change course now, for fear of being labeled inauthentic or desperate. Stay the course and hope for the best. But that’s just bad advice.

Every step outside the comfort zone yields a dividend of surprise. Every potential breakthrough has a moment-one moment when the potential becomes real, when that breakthrough actually, literally, Happens. That’s what 20 Democratic candidates for the White House will be looking for, working for, starting Wednesday night.

◊ ◊ ◊

All of them, even the four who won’t be on stage, know that anything can happen. It's what that another son of Florida — the late, great Tom Petty— would tell us again, if only he could: “Even the losers get lucky sometimes.”

It’s sure as hell true in the context of presidential politics. A peanut farmer from Georgia started out in pre-pre-primary polling with a fraction of 1 percent support. Jimmy Carter went on to win the 1976 Democratic nomination.

Sometimes, luck, hard work and a message pay off. Sometimes, the losers aren’t losers at all.

Tuesday, June 25, 2019

Sausage making according to Joe Biden

Hair caught fire in Democratic circles last week, and a statement from Joe Biden, the frontrunner for the Democratic presidential nomination, was both the spark and accelerant. With one or two words, Biden strayed again out on the American third rail of race, but made a deeper point that eluded much of the media, most of the candidates, and nearly all of the national conversation.

A lot of our understanding of Biden’s statement at a New York City fundraiser on June 18 has been undercut by the way it’s been edited, to suit the breathless shorthand dictates of television news and tweet-era attention spans. Consider the full statement, in which Biden attempted to drive home the importance of being able to negotiate in a sometimes hostile environment of a divided Congress, and to express how he navigated those waters in the past ...

Read the full essay at Medium

Tuesday, June 11, 2019

Along intraparty lines

We're still a year and a half from the election, and the 2020 campaign has already been a shape-shifting thing, with the biggest Democratic field in history, and a Republican president determined to prove that he and he alone can defy political gravity, a second time.

The Democratic herd will thin itself out, of course; it’s subject to the same law of political thermodynamics as the president*: things fall apart. Majorities narrow. Bedrock constituencies have second thoughts. Lately, everyday GOPeople have done just that, pushing back against the transmitted wisdom of the Republican church.

From those occupying the seats in Congress to the ones in folding chairs at town halls, Republicans are starting to think for themselves vis-à-vis Trump's legislative agenda, and who on the other side might be in a position to stop it a year from November. That fact will be problematical for a White House determined to establish a sense of Republican invincibility, behind a single party identity. The reliable party catechism—“Republicans fall in line”—may be falling out of favor with the people who matter most: Republicans. ...

Read the full piece at Swamp

Wednesday, June 5, 2019

Pelosi's dilemma

REP. JERRY Nadler, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, announced on June 3 the intent to vote to find Attorney General and presidential tool William Barr in contempt in Congress. That happened the day before the committee issued subpoenas to former White House communications director and Trump whisperer Hope Hicks, and to Amy Donaldson, one-time chief of staff to former White House Counsel Don McGahn.

They're the latest moves in the attempt to continue the ostensible fact-finding into wrongdoing by President* Trump, fact-finding that many House Democrats and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi want completed before they even consider the process of Trump’s impeachment -- a process that, in meaningful respects, has already begun in fact, if not in name.

Speaker Pelosi has presided over much to'ing and fro'ing about pursuit of "the I word" by the members of the Democratic-majority House of Representatives. This strum und drang is happening mostly because Pelosi and most of the House Dems continue to look at impeachment through the purely political lens -- focusing on impeachment as a political event, rather than what it really is: a constitutional process.

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But the more Pelosi deliberates about it, the more she'll be forced to confront another side of the current dilemma, one that finds her in lockstep with the Republicans enabling a president* with no respect for the rule of law.

It's inescapable: Despite the divergence of their ultimate objectives, for now and into the foreseeable future, Pelosi and the Republicans are reading from the same page of the slow-walk impeachment hymnal.

Both are deeply invested in slowing down or derailing the advance of an impeachment narrative in Congress, albeit for different reasons. Both are eagerly watching the weathervane of popular opinion, each looking for different vindications.

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AND BOTH are hoping the immovable object of the 2020 presidential election will complicate a march, slow or otherwise, towards impeachment, each to serve a different agenda.

The Republicans are fine with this. They couldn’t care less about the short-term optics, as long as their long-term goals are pursued and achieved. It's more problematical for Pelosi. Any perceived alignment with Republican objectives makes her ability to hold a fractious election-eve caucus together that much more complicated.

Pushing back against an impeachment inquiry is, day by day, getting more and more indefensible for Pelosi, who leads a House that’s less concerned with the perception of a public unreceptive to impeachment, and more concerned with a reality of a president for whom impeachment proceedings may be the only check.

◊ ◊ ◊

That unintended adversarial alliance revealed itself before another inconvenient collision of theory and practice. On Tuesday, June 4, and purely by accident, Pelosi and the House Democrats undercut their own rationale for not pursuing impeachment.

That’s when, amid applause and pep-rally chants from the gallery, the Democratic-controlled House passed the DREAM and Promise Act of 2019, a bill to give 2.5 million undocumented immigrants a path to U.S. citizenship.

“The bill addresses DACA program recipients and the beneficiaries of Temporary Protected Status and Deferred Enforced Departure. This includes DREAMers or those brought to the United States illegally as children,” The New York Times reported. “Even if the bill is passed by the Republican-controlled Senate, the White House has said President Trump will veto it.”

◊ ◊ ◊

YOU DON’T have to be the most astute student of American politics to see the contradiction — or the disconnect — between what the House Democrats did on Tuesday and what Speaker Pelosi has been offering for weeks as a reason for not beginning an impeachment inquiry. Pelosi, and others opposing any impeachment overtures, have said it would be a waste of time and capital to make the effort to impeach Trump in the House if that effort had no chance of succeeding in the Senate.

Curious how that fatalistic perspective vis-à-vis House action on impeachment disappeared entirely when it came to the House voting on the DREAM and Promise Act (which passed 237-187, with seven Republicans voting for it).

Even though the DREAM bill’s fate in the Senate may be just as DOA as any impeachment vote would be, Pelosi and House Democrats nonetheless went through the motions, stood on principle, and took that DREAM bill vote anyway. It’s an inconsistency of position that seems hard to explain, much less defend. Not that Pelosi & Co. won’t try.

Image credits: Pelosi: J. Scott Applewhite/Associated Press. Dream and Promise FAQ sheet:
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