A few months ago I had the chance to have a long conversation with Rep. Liz Cheney of Wyoming. While we disagreed on many policy issues, I could not have been more impressed with her unflinching argument that Donald Trump represented an unprecedented threat to American democracy. I was also struck by her commitment to risk her re-election, all the issues she cares about, and even physical harm, to not only vote for Trump's impeachment but also help lead the House investigation of the Jan. 6 insurrection.
At the end of our conversation, though, I could only shake my head and ask: Liz, how could there be only one of you?
She could only shake her head back.
After all, a recent avalanche of news stories and books leaves not a shred of doubt that Trump was attempting to enlist his vice president, his Justice Department and pliant Republican state legislators in a coup d'état to stay in the White House based on fabricated claims of election fraud.
Nearly the entire GOP caucus (save for Cheney and Rep. Adam Kinzinger, who is also risking all to join the Jan. 6 investigation, and a few other Republicans who defied Trump on impeachment) has shamelessly bowed to Trump's will or decided to quietly retire.
They are all complicit in the greatest political sin imaginable: destroying faith in our nation's most sacred process, the peaceful and legitimate transfer of power through free and fair elections. Looking at how Trump and his cult are now laying the groundwork — with new laws, bogus audits, fraud allegations and the installation of more pliant state election officials to ensure victory in 2024 no matter what the count — there is no question that America's 245-year experiment in democracy is in peril.
Just listen to Cheney. Addressing her fellow Republicans on "60 Minutes" on Sunday, she noted that when they abet Trump's delegitimization of the last election, "in the face of rulings of the courts, in the face of recounts, in the face of everything that's gone on to demonstrate that there was not fraud we are contributing to the undermining of our system. And it's a really serious and dangerous moment because of that."
This is Code Red. And that leads me to Democrats in Congress.
I have only one question for them: Are you ready to risk a lot less than Liz Cheney did to do what is necessary right now — from your side — to save our democracy?
Because, when one party in our two-party system completely goes rogue, it falls on the other party to act. Democrats have to do three things at the same time: advance their agenda, protect the integrity of our elections and prevent this unprincipled Trump-cult version of the GOP from ever gaining national power again.
It is a tall order and a wholly unfair burden. But if Cheney is ready to risk everything to stop Trump, then Democrats — moderates and progressives — must rise to this moment and forge the majorities needed in the Senate and House to pass the bipartisan infrastructure bill, a voting rights bill and as much of the Build Back Better legislation as moderate and progressives can agree on.
If the Democrats instead form a circular firing squad, and all three of these major bills get scattered to the winds and the Biden presidency goes into a tailspin — and the Trump Republicans retake the House and Senate and propel Trump back into the White House — there will be no chance later.
So, I repeat: Do Rep. Josh Gottheimer, the leader of the centrist Democrats in the House, and Rep. Pramila Jayapal, leader of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, have the guts to stop issuing all-or-nothing ultimatums and give each other ironclad assurances that they will do something hard?
Yes, they will each risk the wrath of some portion of their constituencies to reach a compromise on passing infrastructure now and voting rights and the Build Back Better social spending soon after. It's called politics.
And are centrist Democratic Sens. Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema ready to risk not being re-elected the way Liz Cheney has by forging a substantive compromise to ensure that consequential election integrity, infrastructure and Build Back Better measures go forward? Or are they just the Democratic equivalents of the careerist hacks keeping Trump afloat — people so attached to their $174,000 salaries and free parking at Reagan National Airport that they will risk nothing?
And, frankly, is the Biden White House ready to forge this compromise with whatever pressures, Oval Office teas, inducements, pork and seductions are needed?
We're not writing the Ten Commandments here. We're doing horse-trading. Just do it.
None of the Democratic lawmakers will be risking their careers by such a compromise, which is child's play compared with facing the daily wrath of running for re-election in the most pro-Trump state in America, Wyoming, while denouncing Trump as the greatest threat to our democracy.
But I fear common sense may not win out. As Minnesota Democratic Rep. Dean Phillips (a relative) remarked to me after Tuesday's caucus of House Democrats: "The absence of pragmatism among Democrats is as troubling as the absence of principle among Republicans."
The New York Times