Elizabeth Dole sounded desperate last week. Trying to inspire dispirited Republicans, the head of the party's Senatorial Campaign Committee wrote a fund-raising letter urging the GOP faithful to rally, because if Democrats seize power they will "call for endless investigations, congressional censure and maybe even impeachment of President Bush." It's a sad truth of politics that if you can't inspire your voters with a positive vision, you scare them.
But then along came House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi to say that, yes, Sen. Dole is exactly right. In a Washington Post interview, Pelosi outlined her plans if the Democrats take control of the House. She started promisingly, vowing quick action to raise the minimum wage, roll back parts of the Republican prescription drug law, implement homeland security measures, and reinstate lapsed budget deficit controls. It was Contract With America lite—a point-by-point articulation meant to show what the party stands for and demonstrate that she and other Democratic leaders were actual adults. Then, as if to kill her plans in the same interview in which she was hatching them, Pelosi announced that her new Democratic majority would also launch a series of investigations reaching all the way back into the first months of the Bush administration. Across the country, vulnerable Republican candidates are saying thank you to Pelosi. The GOP congressional majorities may now be secure.
When Russ Feingold called for censuring the president a month ago, it seemed like a smart political move precisely because he wasn't a Democratic party leader. He was speaking for a vital wing of the party but allowing Democratic leaders to distance themselves from him. But Pelosi is the Democratic leader. Republican claims that Democrats would launch a wave of investigations like the GOP-style ones of the 1990s suddenly seem credible. Those GOP inquiries reached their absurd apogee when Rep. Dan Burton shot a pumpkin in his backyard in an at-home investigation into former Clinton adviser Vince Foster's suicide. "I don't think you'll see anyone shooting into pumpkins anytime soon," said Democratic strategist Joe Lockhart weeks ago when I asked him about the Feingold censure move.
But now, thanks to Pelosi, it may be time to start worrying about long-term pumpkin health. It is important to investigate the ways the Bush administration has used and abused its executive power, but it is much more important not to talk about those investigations when you're trying to launch your policy agenda. It's unbelievably tactically stupid. Perhaps Pelosi couldn't have stayed completely mum on the topic, but she could have given some bland answer about Congress needing to play its oversight role and then returned to her positive agenda items. (She tried to backtrack on Meet the Pressand failed.) Republicans, and Karl Rove in particular, want to paint Democratic leaders as cartoon Ahabs fixated on taking down George Bush, so why would you promise that you're going to turn the House into the Pequod?
Pelosi's defenders, and I am sure there are a few out there, will argue that her comments were smart, because off-year elections are about motivating the base and the base wants investigations. This is true, but isn't George Bush a professional base motivator who invigorates Democrats each waking day? And if the president is not sufficient, won't the base get motivated by the affirmative proposals Pelosi outlined? I know Pelosi is so unpopular in her own party that Democrats view John McCain more favorably, but are investigations really the way to increase her standing? Won't taking control of the House help more?
I thought the whole point of unveiling an agenda was to show that the party wasn't going to get bogged down with investigations and embrace the worst Bush-hating tendencies of its members. Independents and moderates in those swing districts that will help Democrats pick up the 15 seats they need for a majority don't want more investigations: They want results on the issues that affect their lives. They may not like Republicans in Congress, but they're suspicious and disapproving of Democrats, too.
There's been a lot of talk about how the Democrats need to emulate the Republican revolutionaries of 1994, but I believe the idea was that they should emulate the 1994 Republicans, whose Contract With America never mentioned investigating Bill Clinton, not the Republicans who ruined themselves through intemperate investigations after they came to power.