Remember those halcyon days after the 2018 midterms when Democrats promised us all that they were going to not only show the American people they could actually govern but also provide effective oversight of the executive branch. To their credit, they have shown they actually can govern, passing important bills on improving our democracy, attacking the gender wage gap, and taking on corruption, early on in the legislative session. But, because of Mitch McConnell’s refusal to let the Senate even hold hearings on anything other than judges, much less vote on any legislation other than the budget, none of those bills have registered with the American people. The only possible exception is the House bill expanding background checks for gun purchases which creates a problem for McConnell and the GOP whenever there is another mass shooting that captures the attention of the national media. That approach continued today as they further increased the pressure on McConnell by preparing to try and pass bills that include a “red flag” law and restricting the amount of ammunition in a single magazine.
There was a similar assumption that House Democrats would also be equally as aggressive when it came to providing oversight to the corrupt and largely dysfunctional Trump administration. As Representative Raul Grijalva promised, “[W]e can’t waste time. We have to hit the ground running from Day One”. That assumption has turned out to be unwarranted to say the least. Almost from the beginning, actual effective oversight somehow became equated with an actual impeachment process. That problem then became compounded by Pelosi’s continual tamping down of any talk of impeachment from the moment she became the Speaker by creating two conditions that could probably never be met. First, according to the Speaker, any impeachment effort must be bipartisan and, second, it must have the support of the majority of the American people.
In the current polarized environment, the idea of a bipartisan support for impeachment, other than perhaps the support of less than a handful of true traditional conservatives such as Justin Amash, before the process actually begins is a flight of fancy. The GOP is the party of Trump, full stop. Second, with Trump guaranteed the support of around 40% of the voters, creating a clear majority of support for impeachment from the American people, again before the process even began, would also be problematic simply because the process is so disruptive.
The admittedly admirable goal of Pelosi’s preconditions for impeachment was to protect those newly-minted Representatives from red and purple districts in the hopes of ensuring a Democratic majority in the House in 2020. Focusing on legislation at the initial expense of oversight was designed to help in that regard.
The problem that staking out such an impossible impeachment position actually created was that effective oversight could not really occur. That’s because such oversight would inevitably highlight evidence that would seemingly require impeachment proceedings but would not in itself create the conditions to meet Pelosi’s criteria. Indeed, the only two substantial oversight hearings the Democrats have held that were designed to inform the public involved testimony from Michael Cohen and Robert Mueller. Michael Cohen’s hearing alone highlighted the fact that not only had Trump engaged in a felony conspiracy but had also probably routinely engaged in banking and insurance fraud. Mueller’s testimony allowed Democrats to illustrate the ten cases where Trump obstructed justice, five of which contained substantial evidence that a crime had been committed. In addition, Mueller opined that the President had not been truthful in his written answers. Two hearings, substantial evidence of six crimes, and some evidence of many more.
Pelosi and the establishment Democrats in Congress took the fact that the nation did not rise up in groundswell of demands for impeachment even in the face of these Trump crimes as evidence their approach was working. But that also resulted in the House slow-walking other hearings and investigations or ignoring them completely. The effort to get Trump’s financial data, the investigation into Emoluments Clause violations, the dangling of pardons, hearings about the corruption across multiple federal agencies, the ongoing crimes and violations of law at the southern border, the misuse of congressionally appropriated funds, the brazen lies under oath of Wilbur Ross, Kirstjen Nielsen, Jeff Sessions, and others, FEMA’s hurricane response, and so much more have all moved at a snail’s pace if they have even been pursued at all. Admittedly, some of that has to do with the unprecedented defiance of Trump and his administration to comply with valid subpoenas and provide testimony to Congress. But those actions alone should be the subject of additional hearings and potential evidence of impeachable offenses.
Instead, as Trump’s behavior continues to show he is unfit for office (I mean taking a Sharpie to a weather map and then trying to pass it off as reality is about the level of a six year old), to openly profit from the office of the Presidency, to ignore campaign finance rules, and to corrupt even the most benign federal agencies (the National Weather Service?), the numbers of Democrats calling for impeachment continues to grow. And those other Democratic House members who don’t openly support impeachment know, as does Pelosi herself, that the President should be impeached but simply feel it is not politically expedient to do so. They have taken the Pelosi stance that Trump will “self-impeach”, whatever that means, and will be held accountable at the ballot box. As California Rep. Harley Rouda said, “There’s an old adage about a frog if you throw it in boiling water it jumps out but if you put it in warm water and turn on the heat it will swim around until it get cooked…The speaker is cooking the president”. The problem with that theory, of course, is that the more Trump “self impeaches”, the greater the pressure on Democrats to formally start the process and the weaker they look for not doing so.
Now, with the Democratic caucus basically split over impeachment, the leadership is trying to have it both ways, pretending that an impeachment inquiry is really starting to placate one half while saying impeachment proceedings have not begun to the other. In the end, neither side is particularly happy. The chaos resulting from this tactic was clearly illustrated the other day with one Representative on the Judiciary Committee saying “We have been in the midst of an impeachment investigation”, another Representative on the Intelligence Committee saying “No, we’re not in an impeachment investigation”, and a member of the leadership saying Democrats were trying to determine “whether or not there should be an impeachment investigation”. The clarity of the Democratic message is truly inspiring. The fact of the matter is that the legislative calendar is now incredibly short before the 2020 campaign begins in earnest and every day that passes makes impeachment less and less likely.
Josh Marshall has continually pointed out the salience of the dominance theory of American politics, that voters prefer strong, decisive leaders who will always defend themselves and fight back. Voters often prefer a candidate with strong committed views who can forcefully defend them even if they don’t necessarily agree with their policies, something that Elizabeth Warren’s surging campaign is illustrating. Dominance, of course, is Trump’s modus operandi which is what made him such a potent candidate despite the obvious fact that he was an ignoramus and an inveterate liar.
The Democrats in Congress, on the other hand, are showing themselves to be the exact opposite of dominant, once again saying three different things at once and acting indecisively. Part of that is the nature of a collection of nearly 250 people as opposed to just one. But it feeds into the mistrust that voters have with Democrats that has built up over the years as a result of focused attacks from the right wing propaganda machine and with help from Democrats themselves. Indeed, Pelosi’s conditions for impeachment are an open admission that Democrats are simply driven by polls and not conviction. While not nearly as egregious as McConnell’s refusal to defend the country from the Russian attack on our election in 2016, an argument can be made that Pelosi too is putting party over country by refusing to impeach a President who is violating the law and degrading our democracy with such abandon.
None of this will really matter in the 2020 presidential campaign which will be solely a referendum on Trump. Where this impeachment chaos might make a slight difference is in the down-ballot races. There, the base could be annoyed with the lack of even an attempt at accountability for Trump and the moderates could be turned off by the inability of the party to be consistent on the issue. With Republicans in particular pretty much all planning to running base elections, anything that potentially limits Democratic turnout could be problematic.
There are two broader, more long-term, problems with Pelosi’s reluctance to lead on impeachment. First, it only encourages even further attacks on our democracy from Trump and the Republicans, knowing that Democrats will take no real action to stop them. Today, House Democrats are simply chasing Trump’s crimes and violations, promising hearings that will never happen on such things as hosting the G-7 summit at Doral or what exactly the supposed deal with the Taliban actually entailed or whether he ordered NOAA to correct the NWS or the effort to blackmail Ukraine into providing dirt on Biden. By the time those hearings even get planned, Trump will have created dozens more scandals for the Democrats to chase.
The bigger issue is that the refusal to impeach will once again mean that powerful elites will avoid accountability. The argument that impeachment in the House is meaningless without a conviction in the Senate is specious. Impeachment itself is a censure and an admonition, a stain that no president can erase from history. There will be a marker that lays out the crimes committed and the aides and sycophants who abetted them.
In fact, it is this lack of real accountability that has eroded the faith in our institutions. Politicians who have ripped off the American taxpayer like Tom Price, Ryan Zinke, and Scott Pruitt just walk away with no consequence. War criminals like Dick Cheney, John Yoo, and John Bolton simply move on to the next job or cushy retirement. Outside of politics, the Wall Street CEOs who brought the world’s financial system to its knees simply took their money and walked away. It took decades for serial sexual predators like Jeffrey Epstein and Harvey Weinstein to be held to account in the most minimal way, while Donald Trump himself avoids accountability as President. The Sackler family, having killed thousands by falsifying the effects of OxyContin, will reportedly walk away by paying back a small portion of the fortune they have made and without having to admit any guilt.
The Democratic plan of simply voting Trump out of office is just another way of ensuring that Trump will never really be held to account. He will have made millions during his time in office and created dangerous precedents for abusing power that future authoritarians like himself will be able to exploit. He will walk out of the office (assuming he actually does leave) and further capitalize on his criminal presidency. And the Democratic party, like the legal system and the courts, will just be another organization that seems incapable of holding our elites to account.