Unsurprisingly, the New York Times, the newspaper that virtually invented the #MeToo movement, has declared Nancy Pelosi’s confrontation with Donald Trump yesterday a victory for feminism. “We rarely get to see a woman in that level of leadership confronted in that way,” it quotes Debbie Walsh, director of the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University, as saying. “I think this was an example that really speaks to women’s capacity to lead, and to do it civilly, to do it with grace and to be strong and clear.”
This is nonsense. Rather than a woman’s capacity to lead, all the exchange demonstrated was the Democratic leadership’s deep fear of publicly disagreeing with the president. “I don’t think we should have a debate in front of the press on this,” Pelosi pleaded at one point. “Let’s debate in private,” added Chuck Schumer. “This is the most unfortunate thing,” Pelosi continued. “We came in here in good faith, and we are entering into this kind of a discussion in the public view.”
To which Trump could only retort: “But it’s not bad, Nancy…. It’s called transparency.” All that Pelosi accomplished in the end was to make the Great Orange-Haired One look good.
This was sad, certainly. But it wasn’t Pelosi’s fault, at least not entirely. To the contrary, the horror of debate arises from deep within the American political structure. After all, the 55 delegates who attended the Philadelphia convention in 1787 were so terrified of what people might think if they openly disagreed with one another that they opted to keep their proceedings secret. Indeed, Madison kept his notes about the proceedings under wraps for a full half century because he wanted the illusion of consensus to go undisturbed. While Congress certainly saw plenty of disagreement in the years that followed, the system of divided powers that the founders bequeathed insured that politics would move increasingly off-stage as congressional leaders and the president negotiated their differences quietly among themselves. The public thus found itself increasingly in the dark. More recently, “sidebar politics” have reached baroque proportions as the legislative and executive branches ballooned and committees and subcommittees multiplied. What takes place on the House or Senate floor is now all for show while the real action takes place offstage in corridors and committee rooms, far from the prying eyes of the public.
Pelosi was expecting a similar sort of private exchange when she and Schumer arrived at the White House, which is why she was so visibly put out when Trump dared to challenge her before the press. He broke the rules, you see, by openly disagreeing. Everyone knows that the two sides can’t stand one another. But constitutional faith requires that they pretend to get along so that government can continue.
Ironically, this deep-seated aversion does nothing to limit debate. To the contrary, tamping it down in Congress merely scatters it and drives it into the shadows. When it does emerge, it’s all the more poisonous by virtue of being disorganized and repressed. Instead of allowing one side to triumph over the other, the resultant muddle insures that all sides will sit and stew in a puddle of anger and incoherence. The result is a country riven by deep disagreements that no one has any idea how to resolve.
Notice how Pelosi remained silent while Trump denounced thousands of desperate refugees huddled in Tijuana as nothing more than disease-ridden terrorists? Too polite to spring to their defense, all she could do was emphasize how fervently she and Chuck agree on the need for stepped-up “border security.” So what if Trump kicks the huddled masses when they’re down? The last thing Democrats want to do is violate constitutional propriety by saying that he’s wrong.