Column: Have Democrats finally stopped wimping out?

Rep. Adam Schiff speaks in front of a blown-up photograph of boxes stacked in a bathroom.
Rep. Adam B. Schiff questions special counsel Robert Hur on Tuesday, backed by a photograph of a bathroom at Mar-a-Lago where Donald Trump kept boxes of classified documents after he left the White House.
(Nathan Howard / Associated Press)

For years now, the single most common complaint I’ve heard from Democrats is that their party doesn’t fight as hard, and never dirty, like Republicans do — they don’t bring guns to a gunfight. Since 2016, I’ve heard that rap from Republicans too: Never-Trump types express surprise and exasperation that their Democratic comrades in arms against the former president don’t, well, take up arms politically.

Democratic pols will concede as much: They worry about how they might come off to the poli-sci profs, pundits and civic-minded idealists. Their good-government bent is commendable. But getting bested repeatedly by the likes of Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell is not.

Opinion Columnist

Jackie Calmes

Jackie Calmes brings a critical eye to the national political scene. She has decades of experience covering the White House and Congress.

”One of us is playing with a rolling pin, and the other is fighting with a gun,” an aide to Senate leaders once told me, frustrated that Democrats were adhering to Marquess of Queensberry rules as Republicans busted norms to pack the federal courts. “We always bring a butter knife to a gunfight,” longtime Democratic strategist Brian Fallon similarly groused not long ago.

Fallon felt that so strongly that Democrats were wimping out that in 2017 he co-founded a liberal activist group, Demand Justice, to give the left a more combative approach in judicial confirmation contests. He recently left the group for a job in the Biden campaign, as the communications director for Vice President Kamala Harris. That’s good: Democrats need scrappers, lots of ’em, and the ever-cautious Harris in particular needs communications firepower.


Even better signs of a more fired-up Democratic Party have emerged lately, just as Biden and Trump each secured their respective parties’ nominations Tuesday with wins in several states’ primary contests.

With voting in Georgia primary, President Biden has formally clinched a second straight Democratic nomination for the White House.

March 12, 2024

One sign was Biden’s plucky State of the Union address last week, in which he took a baker’s dozen shots at “my predecessor” and parried House Republicans’ taunts like a smiling Dark Brandon come to life, shooting red lasers from his eyes. To hear Republicans carp afterward that Biden was too partisan gave new meaning to the pot calling the kettle black.

Another indication of an amped-up Democratic offense was news of a big $30-million Biden campaign ad buy, along with the president’s busy stumping schedule in battleground states and the campaign’s plans to hire hundreds of aides. The first ad was a good one, too, featuring a lively Biden poking fun at his age, noting his achievements, drawing contrasts with Trump and, appropriately, promising “to fight for you.”

And on Tuesday came some evidence that other Democrats will have Biden’s back. Those on the House Judiciary Committee came loaded for bear to the hearing that the majority Republicans held showcasing Robert Hur, a Republican and the former special counsel whose recent report on Biden’s handling of classified materials included damaging commentary about the president’s age and alleged “diminished faculties.”

Biden and Trump offer converging narratives about the country: one optimistic, one apocalyptic. That collision is the core of the 2024 election.

March 11, 2024

The committee’s Democrats, notably California Reps. Ted Lieu, Adam B. Schiff and Eric Swalwell, appropriately focused less on Hur’s asides about mental lapses and more on his report’s conclusions that “no criminal charges are warranted” against Biden (compared to 41 felony counts against Trump). And that despite Republicans’ claims to the contrary, what Biden did with top-secret documents was in no way comparable to the far more serious allegations against Trump for conspiracy and false statements.

The committee Democrats didn’t ignore the issue of age and mental acuity; they simply turned it against Trump. Several of them came, yes, armed — with video montages of the former president’s verbal flubs, slurred words and non sequiturs at recent MAGA rallies.

But Democrats’ more typical lack of fight explains why Hur, a former Trump Justice Department official, was tapped as special counsel — by Biden’s Atty. Gen. Merrick Garland — in the first place. Democrats, wanting to be seen as fair, keep giving Republicans a virtual monopoly on independent counsel jobs each time Washington decides it needs another high-profile investigation. Whether the person being investigated is a Democrat (Bill Clinton and Hillary Clinton) or a Republican (Donald Trump), Democrats have supported having a Republican prosecutor.


The president’s enemies and the uninformed combine his recall issues with stereotypes to create a false narrative of intellectual impairment.

March 7, 2024

Republicans don’t reciprocate.

David Brock, now a Democratic operative but notorious in the 1990s as a ruthless, right-wing scourge of the Clintons, a few years ago confessed to me his occasional irritation with his new party for its punch-pulling, say, by rejecting a line of attack as somehow unfair.

“Now, that’s nothing that I ever experienced as a young conservative,” he told me. “There’s a different ethic.”

“Republicans just want the result, they just want to get there, they want the win,” Brock added. Democrats, on the other hand, “do a lot of hand-wringing about how to get there,” about whether they are being respectful of the “process.”

And yet, ask most Republican voters and they’ll tell you that it’s Democrats who are the dirty fighters, cheating in elections and weaponizing the government against their foes, chiefly Trump. Because that is what Trump tells them.

That’s Republicans’ dirtiest play of all. Lying to their own voters.

This election year will likely be as mean as any in memory. Here’s hoping I’m correct that Biden and the Democrats have sheathed the butter knives and shelved the rolling pins. It’s not like Trump hasn’t given them the ammunition for a gunfight.