Nancy Pelosi’s decision to launch a formal impeachment inquiry into Donald Trump is not just a hinge moment in his presidency, and in the relationship between the executive and legislative branches of government. It is a hinge moment in the history of the Democratic Party. The era of Democratic caution—which lasted for at least a quarter century—is over.
In 2006, the journalist Thomas Edsall, after decades of playing poker in Washington, explained why Republicans generally won. “Republicans,” he wrote, “are much less risk-averse than Democrats, and taking risks is crucial to poker.”
You didn’t need to be an aficionado of seven-card stud to grasp his point. The Democrats with whom Edsall played poker were politically cautious because they associated risk taking with defeat. In the 1972 election, which Hillary Clinton called her and Bill’s “first rite of passage,” George McGovern—the most audaciously progressive nominee of the late 20th century—lost 49 states. Eight years later, Ronald Reagan—the most audaciously conservative nominee of the late 20th century—won.
By the late 1980s, after Reagan had secured reelection with 49 states, Democratic leaders had settled on an explanation. As the political scientists William Galston and Elaine Kamarck wrote in their 1989 essay “The Politics of Evasion”: “During the last two decades, most Democratic nominees have come to be seen as unacceptably liberal.”