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{Empty title} | The Nation

As a critic of Nancy Pelosi and of most Congressional Democrats, I was somewhat taken aback by the authentically oral quality of this carefully transcribed interview, which clearly presents our Speaker of the House as the both personable and fallible human being that she is. How wrongly we misjudge this remarkable woman when we assume that she somehow "commands" the House of Representatives--as our President in fact does command the executive branch! And we do Pelosi injustice when we speak of her "taking impeachment off the table," as if she did this all by herself. We should take care not to ascribe Pelosi's cowardly decisions to her own cowardice alone. This malaise is widespread among Democrats and has been spreading among them for a quarter-century at least.

The primary symptom of this malaise is the assumption, echoed but by no means introduced by Pelosi, that winning the next election is the prerequisite for winning the election that follows. Recent events have demonstrated how debilitating this assumption really is over the long term. Suppose more Democrats had bravely voted against the war in 2002--and had suffered for this decision in 2004. Surely they would have experienced an even more dramatic comeback in 2006! Moreover, they would have come back as a party with its principles intact, rather than reduced to empty pieties. I would like to offer this definition of a principle: it is something that you are willing to fight for simply because you know that it is right, even if you know that in the short term at least, you will lose.

If we define "principle" in this way, then the Democrats today seem to have become a party without any principles, because they are unwilling to fight for anything unless they feel certain that they will win, and win quickly. Already during the Carter Administration, many Democrats began to betray both the New and the Old Left by deregulating banks and weakening labor laws. By "moving to the center," many Democrats since Carter, most notoriously the Clintons, have too often temporarily improved their strategic position by taking actions of convenience that in the long term have weakened their own base.

This weakness is a legacy that has been passed on to today's Democrats, including Pelosi. It is a bitter but true fact of recent experience that cowardly actions in the past make brave actions in the future all the more difficult. In her interview, Speaker Pelosi observed, correctly, that the Democrats' votes for the Iraq War and the Patriot Act have weakened their ability to build a strong case for impeaching Cheney and Bush. Pelosi is right to point to this legacy of cowardice and to explain how much it hampers progress within her party and our country today. However, this explanation falls short of a solution, just as it falls short of an excuse.