Opinion

Boycotting the inauguration may be the right protest but the wrong battleground

Nearly 50 Democrats in the U.S. House of Representatives, or about a quarter of the minority party’s caucus, plan to skip Friday’s inauguration of the 45th U.S. president. Their ranks include at least 15 members from California, whose districts voted overwhelmingly for the candidate who won’t be taking the oath of office that day.

It’s more subtle than showing up in pink pussy hats, unquestionably. But no less inappropriate.

Bear in mind that these lawmakers’ chosen candidate — Hillary Clinton — will be in attendance when Donald Trump is sworn in because she’s a former first lady, and by tradition former presidents and their spouses are included in the country’s ritual transfer of power. So are members of Congress, whether their party won or lost.

Many of the boycott-minded Democrats say they can’t bring themselves to celebrate the elevation of a man who’s disparaged so many of the people he will be leading. Some others cite things that Trump has done or failed to do during the transition, and others — most notably Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.) — have questioned the legitimacy of his election.

I suspect that if you asked each of these members what the House’s biggest problem over the past eight years, they would all say something along the lines of “Republican intransigence.” And if you asked them why they were seemingly engaged in total war against the new president, they would all argue that the GOP did that to President Obama first.

Perhaps Jared Kushner can stop this cycle of retributive political violence after he ends the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Admittedly, it’s ironic to complain about decorum and convention being flouted by Democrats, given that Trump, the least decorous candidate of the modern era, derided convention as a tool of corrupt Washington’s status quo. But just because Trump was wrong about so many things, that doesn’t mean Democrats should go about trashing the rituals and institutions of the federal government too.

The inauguration ceremony sends an important message to the world about the durability of the American democracy. That’s even more true after a close and bitterly contested campaign such as the last one, whose results still sting great swaths of the country’s voters.

With this ritual, we say that we unite as a country behind the Constitution and the institutions it created. It’s not about the results so much as the process; even when the Oval Office is handed to the candidate we didn’t support, we have faith in the checks and balances that the founders designed.

A number of the boycotting Democrats say they respect the ceremony’s symbolism and the importance of the peaceful transition of power. But they’re trying to have it both ways. And the symbolism of their own actions is unmistakable: By turning their backs on Trump’s swearing-in, they are rejecting the choice of the voters who made Trump president.

Here’s where I insert the obligatory but probably unnecessary disclaimer, given the fact that I’m a member of the editorial board at the Los Angeles Times: I am decidedly not a fan of The Donald. We wrote in early March that Trump was unfit for the presidency, and he’s done nothing since then to change my mind.

And I recognize that, to some people, Trump is such a threat to so many Americans, the only proper course of action is unrelenting resistance — to pull a Mitch McConnell, as it were. Yet the inauguration is exactly the wrong forum for that kind of partisanship.

There’s one other irony to acknowledge here. I’m many of the things Trump railed against — not just a member of the media “elite,” but also a defender of the ingrained ways of Washington. And my colleagues on the board and I are pushing back hard against Trump’s many departures from those ways, such as his refusal to remove fundamental conflicts of interest and his Cabinet nominees who seem to hate the departments they were chosen to lead.  

But I recognize the difference between an institution and the people who happen to occupy it at any given moment. Trump’s opponents need to pick their battles better.

Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Burbank) just announced that he would attend the inauguration, and he offered a lengthy explanation on Facebook. Here’s the money paragraph:

“Like many of you, I was appalled when candidate Trump wouldn't commit to respecting the result of the election if he lost. I feel I would be doing the same thing if I boycotted the ceremony in which the office of the Presidency is passed from one occupant of the office to the next. There's a reason why Senators Feinstein, Harris, Sanders and others are attending the Inauguration, and it is out of respect for the office, even if the man who is taking the oath has demonstrated little understanding of what that means. If former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton can demonstrate the grit to attend the Inauguration after Trump's slanderous attacks on her, then so can I.”

jon.healey@latimes.com

Twitter: @jcahealey

The original version of this post incorrectly identified Rep. Adam Schiff as a Democrat from Glendale. He's from Burbank.

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