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The Democrats Are Paralyzed by Fear

I don't know what it will take for them to take a risk.

Just commit! Flickr/Thorsten Koch

In the past few weeks I have decided, at the ripe age of 30, that I want to learn how to skateboard. Not to cruise around on a longboard, which is only cool if you’re under 20 and directly adjacent to a beach, but to wear chunky shoes and baggy jeans and learn how to flip a small piece of maple wood and metal around my feet.

One problem I’ve been having is that doing most skateboarding tricks requires you to fully commit to the move. You cannot half-ass it, and if you hesitate even slightly, there’s an almost zero percent chance you’ll land the trick. This is hard for me because trying to jump around on a flexible, rolling piece of wood is both extremely difficult and terrifying. For some basic moves, like an ollie, I know I can do the trick. I have done it hundreds of times while standing still or holding onto a fence. But when I’m moving forward, I hesitate. I don’t commit, and most of the time, I don’t get off the ground. If you haven’t picked up on it yet this is a metaphor for Politics.

The Democratic Party is absolutely paralyzed by this kind of fear. Democrats are almost pathologically unable to commit. The latest victim of this fear is marijuana legalization, which was poised to take another major step toward national recognition with a bill called the MORE Act that would remove most federal penalties for weed-related crimes. Then this happened, per Politico:

Democrats have been scared off by Republicans’ use of the marijuana bill to bludgeon Democrats on the lack of a coronavirus deal, and moderates in tight races worry it will be linked to hits they’re already taking over the “defund the police” movement. So instead of embracing the progressive messaging of this bill as an election win, House leaders are now thinking about punting marijuana until after November 3.

“In about two weeks, the conversation has gone from ‘no problem’ to people now doing a stutter step, maybe trying to … avoid this vote altogether,” said Rep. Lou Correa (D-Calif.), a co-chair of the moderate Blue Dog Coalitionand a strong supporter of cannabis legislation. “[It] should have been a non-partisan vote, support on both sides of the aisle.”

This is just… I don’t know man. It’s infuriating. I have a lot of problems with the modern Democratic Party, chief among them its embrace of incremental centrism and its leadership’s hostility to progressive candidates. But the most insane thing about this trend is that the Democrats can’t even commit to incrementalism! The bill Politico refers to is barely a nationwide legalization bill. It removes the drug from the federal Controlled Substances Act. While that may make it federally legal, individual states can still pass their own laws regulating its production, sale, and overall legality. It would be a huge step, yes, but in the context of current popular opinion and political capital, one that actually fits into the Democrats’ hesitant push for “a slightly better future, eventually, if everyone’s ok with that over at Exxon.”

That’s because marijuana legalization is incredibly popular! There is literally no downside to this. It polls at roughly 60 percent in nearly every national poll and has bipartisan support in the House. This is an easy, easy layup that only benefits the party.

The arguments against it are incredibly weak as well. Sure, it probably won’t get past the Senate — Mitch McConnell is staunchly opposed. But these are the kind of bills the Democrat-led House should have been ramming through twice a week since 2018. Imagine going into a presidential year and hammering the GOP with “we could have had legal weed, but McConnell blocked it.” Now, instead, we get “let’s see if we win and then maybe we can do a little weed.”

It’s also just handing McConnell the win immediately. As Politico reports, his strategy was to say that Democrats were prioritizing weed over coronavirus aid, and to link it to vague criminal justice narratives like defunding the police. Again, this is about a broad proposition that has 60 percent public support. The correct response to this is to say, no, that’s not true: Democrats have had various aid bills sitting in front of the Senate for months. But rather than challenge McConnell on this, Democrats backed out. They refused to commit to the move. In skating, I have learned, when you don’t commit you usually eat shit. Sometimes when you commit you still eat shit, but it’s rarely as bad as the shit you eat when you get scared and try to pull out of a trick early.

When they do commit, they can win, as the Washington Post’s Dave Weigel pointed out:

And right now, all available signs are basically screaming that this is a good move to commit to. Trump last month urged governors to keep anything resembling marijuana off their ballots in November, reasoning correctly that it was a turnout-driving issue that helped sink Republican governors and House members in 2018. Granted, the Democrats can’t directly put the MORE act on the ballot in the general election, but they can sure as hell campaign on it aggressively for the next few months — but only if they had a landmark House vote to show for it. Now it looks like they won’t, which heavily increases their chances of just absolutely beefin’ it come November. The nice thing about skating at least is that when I fall over it’s just me who goes down. The problem with politics is that all the rest of us are along for the ride.