Reporter's Notebook: Why House Dem leaders can't wreck the freshmen's 'homecoming float'

Back when I was in high school, a couple of upperclassmen got in big trouble for going out late one night and trashing the freshman class homecoming float.

Homecoming was a big production at my rural high school. A few weeks before the big day, each class would usually scope out a barn somewhere and begin tricking out a hay trailer with every piece of crepe paper available in southwestern Ohio. This would be the genesis of a class float for the homecoming parade.

But in my junior year, vandals ruined the freshman homecoming float. People were mad. But it surprised nobody. After all, it was only the freshman homecoming float. Certainly, the freshmen weren’t going to defile the junior or senior homecoming float. They were lowly underclassmen. It was only natural that upperclassmen would tear up the freshman float. After all, they were just freshmen.

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You wouldn’t blame senior House Democrats for occasionally wanting to trash the House freshman homecoming float. After all, the left-wing messages of Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., Rashida Tlaib, D-Mich., and Ilhan Omar, D-Minn., seem to capture most of the attention in the press – much to the dismay of other voices in the House Democratic Caucus. But House Democrats know they can’t rip up the homecoming float of the freshmen.

That’s because the politics of many House Democrats are far more moderate than those of Ocasio-Cortez, Tlaib, Omar and others. Democrats don't have control of the House because they won those dark-blue districts in New York, Michigan and Minnesota. Democrats are now in the majority because of freshmen most Americans have never heard of: Reps. Abby Finkenauer, D-Iowa, Ben McAdams, D-Utah, Haley Stevens, D-Mich., and Xochitl Torres Small, D-N.M., to name a few. These Democrats are more tempered in their views. They represent swing districts. They flipped their seats from red to blue in the last election cycle. And party elders know they have to keep these seats in Democratic hands or risk a return to the minority.

This is why Democrats can't wreck the freshman float. The freshmen are too valuable, even if a particularly small minority of those freshmen are the ones who capture the headlines.

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This reflects the current Democratic conundrum with the Mueller Report. Some liberal Democrats believe the report clears them to move to impeach President Trump. More moderate Democrats aren't so sure.

The Mueller report not only revealed some of Trump’s deceitful behavior but exposed chasms between House Democrats over how to proceed in the post-special counsel world.

This is why House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., reiterated to her caucus in a letter Monday that House Democrats will "conduct oversight over the other branches of government."

Not exactly a full-throated endorsement of impeachment. That's why Pelosi immediately pivoted in her missive to call out the GOP.

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"Congressional Republicans have an unlimited appetite for such low standards," Pelosi wrote of Trump's comportment as spelled out in the Mueller Report. "The GOP should be ashamed of what the Mueller Report has revealed, instead of giving the President their blessings."

Pelosi must walk down both sides of the street, simultaneously jabbing the President and his Administration – to say nothing of Congressional Republicans – without doing anything to damage her freshman class and new majority.

In her letter, Pelosi wrote that Democrats were committed to finding the "truth." That’s why House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerry Nadler, D-N.Y., authorized a subpoena for former White House Counsel Don McGahn to testify and provide documents about what he told Mueller. Nadler announced the subpoena moments before House Democrats jumped on the Monday conference call to discuss their options now that the Russia investigation is complete.

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The release of the Mueller report in the middle of a two-week Congressional recess for Easter and Passover may have hindered the ability of Democrats control the narrative. Trump could thunder on Twitter there was "no collusion" and "no obstruction," Game of Thrones style. It would have been easier for Democrats to counter Trump's narrative had lawmakers been roaming the Capitol. But the timing of the report's publication may have been a blessing in disguise for Democrats. The absence of Democrats in Washington muted internal schisms over what would come next.

So this is the likely path for Democrats: Lots of hearings. Attorney General William Barr is slated to appear at Senate and House sessions next week. Then a likely appearance by Mueller. Possible testimony by McGahn later in May. The trick for Democrats is to continue chipping away at the president, undercutting him going into 2020 – yet not to impeach. Such a strategy might not be everything liberal Democrats want. But it could mildly satisfy the appetite of the base as they attempt to pummel the President.

Moreover, such a scheme would protect many of the vulnerable House Democrats mentioned above – especially freshmen from battleground districts.

That said, there is a risk that the public could interpret repeated inquests into various aspects of the Mueller report as harassment. That could distract from the Democrats’ honed message of health care and infrastructure. But it’s not impeachment.

“If it is what we need to do to honor our responsibility to the Constitution – if that’s the place the facts take us, that’s the place we have to go,” said Pelosi on the conference call. “We don’t have to go to articles of impeachment to obtain the facts, the presentation of facts.”

No wonder Trump told reporters Monday he was “not even a little bit” worried about impeachment.

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So, Democrats will kinda-sorta-maybe-perhaps-talk-about-impeachment-but-not-rule-it-out any time soon. Republicans will rail against this ploy as though Democrats are aiming for the jugular. But rank-and-file Democrats, especially freshmen, will enjoy a few layers of protection. Pelosi needs all her new members on board with the gambit. Liberals and moderates. Those from safe districts. Those from liberal epicenters.

All new majorities in the House refer to their freshman as "majority makers." So, this "tweener" ploy is just for them, regardless of their politics.

And that’s why the freshman homecoming float will remain intact for now.