WASHINGTON — This is no time to be on the sidelines.
Stacey Abrams: Stand up and be counted. "I do not want to serve in the Senate," says the hugely popular former Georgia Democratic gubernatorial nominee.
Steve Bullock: Stand up and be counted. "My talents are best suited" to an executive role, says Montana's well-liked Democratic governor.
Beto O'Rourke: Stand up and be counted. "That would not be good enough" to serve in the Senate, says the gifted former Democratic congressman from Texas.
Sorry, but what's not "good enough" are those answers. The three could make all the difference in Democrats' uphill quest to take the Senate next year. Instead, they choose to run vanity campaigns for president (or in Abrams's case, await a vice presidential nod) or put themselves in line for a Cabinet post. Ordinarily, I'd respect their wish to do what fulfills them or works best for their families or positions them for future success.
But these are not ordinary times. This is an all-hands-on-deck moment not just for Democrats but for American democracy. If the anti-Trump majority doesn't prevail next year and resoundingly repudiate the hatred, isolation and drift toward autocracy, it won't much matter what happens later. Abrams, Bullock and O'Rourke owe it to the country to end the reign of President Trump's enablers in the Senate.
It's easy to see why they'd prefer not to run for Senate. The Senate has become a toxic workplace, and service there unrewarding. That's thanks in large part to the amorality of Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky. The majority leader and his caucus could have stood up to Trump's indecency. Instead, he, and they, pursued power with no principles: breaking Senate rules, allowing Russia's ongoing interference in U.S. elections, refusing to even consider legislation that could stop the mass shootings that are terrorizing America's children. They have shown that they are too cowardly and too self-interested to be a check on Trump's abuses.
But that's all the more reason to run. If Trump somehow prevails next year, it's crucial he not have a McConnell-led Senate to ratify his ruinous ways. And if Trump is to be defeated next year, it will be because the most capable people stepped up to challenge him — at all levels. Trumpism must be defeated resoundingly, and that means holding to account Republicans who failed to follow their conscience.
Even now, with still-strong employment numbers, polls show Trump's Democratic challengers defeating him. If the economy tanks before the election (it's only a matter of time because of the damage Trump has added to the nation's finances, his politicization of monetary policy and his destabilization of international trade), there is the possibility of a thunderous repudiation of Trump — but only if Trump's opposition goes all-in.
This isn't just about Abrams, Bullock and O'Rourke; Democrats need to mount fierce challenges everywhere in case an electoral wave comes. Democrats, like-minded independents and disillusioned Republicans should be giving whatever small-dollar contributions they can to candidates, parties and get-out-the-vote efforts, and volunteering to knock on doors or make calls or whatever else is needed.
And it isn't just about Democrats. Government workers should remain at their posts regardless of how unpleasant the job has become to prevent yet more damage to federal agencies. Judges should postpone retirement rather than let Trump fill the judiciary with incompetents. And weary journalists and watchdog groups must keep up relentless scrutiny of the administration.
Some sunshine soldiers have already let down the cause, declining Democratic entreaties to run for the Senate in states such as Iowa and North Carolina, where Trump-enablers Joni Ernst and Thom Tillis seek reelection. But none of those prospects had the potential to transform races in the way Bullock, Abrams and possibly O'Rourke could.
There's still some hope that Bullock and O'Rourke, despite their disavowals of interest, will run for the Senate after they scratch their presidential itches. The case of Abrams is more perplexing. She has said it would be "arrogant" to think she's the only Democrat who could win a Senate seat in Georgia. Yet it appears she's holding out for a vice-presidential nomination. "I would be honored," she told WBUR's "On Point" on Tuesday.
With the retirement of the ailing Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., both Georgia Senate seats will be on the ballot next year. And the Democrats' best candidate won't run for either? That's a gift to Trump's enablers.
Why? For the "honor" of a vice-presidential nomination? I hope Abrams reconsiders. History won't be kind to those who stepped aside in democracy's time of need.
Dana Milbank is a syndicated columnist. Contact him at email@example.com.