It matters

Today the U.S. House of Representatives impeached the president of the United States.  Even though the chances are vanishingly small that the United States Senate will remove this president from office over these two articles of impeachment, that matters.

Read the Mueller Report.  Read the House Intelligence Committee report.  Read the House Judiciary Committee report.  Read the summaries of any of those documents.  Or just think about all the incredible stories of the goings on of the president ever since Donald Trump was sworn into office.  There is more than enough evidence for a clear-eyed observer to conclude that Trump has committed impeachable offenses…so many, and so blatantly, in fact, that to not impeach him would have been the grossest example of the House ignoring its responsibility to perform checks and balances of the Executive Branch.  Any president who had done what this one has done would deserve to be impeached, too, to be shamed and held up to the ridicule of history, and have the Senate vote to remove him or her from office for the good of the country.

But wait: the place is swarming with Republicans who say there is no proof that Trump did anything illegal, or even improper, or impeachable at all.  Many of them are actually screaming it, and then insisting Trump is the best president ever—not just better than Obama or Clinton or Bush (either one) but better than Washington or any of those other dudes.  It’s fascinating.

I get it that party loyalty is important, if you’re a member of a party, and I get that there are more members of Congress than I would like to admit who actually love what Trump is doing and won’t do anything to get in his way.  That includes so many who were seemingly appalled by Candidate Trump, who saw him as a threat to the country; now they have his back without question.

Why in the world are all these people so servile to Trump?  Why in the hell don’t these men and women, who in most other circumstances behave as though they are the highest expression of God’s own creation, act the part of members of Congress and assert their authority as a co-equal branch of the government?  They may be loyal to a president of their own party, or to the president of our country, but they don’t work for him and they aren’t there to do his bidding.  They may agree with the president’s policies and support his goals, but they have a responsibility to their constituents, and the Constitution, and to the rest of us, too, to be a restraint against a president who oversteps his bounds.  They have taken the art of deluding themselves to the zenith, and achieved a new nadir when it comes to supporting their party at any cost.  Hard to understand how they don’t see that their own reputations and honor and place in history are at risk, each and every one of them.

As troubling as it is…as confusing as it is…to see so many apparently intelligent and well-educated people publicly forsake the evidence of their own senses to support a president who has so clearly demonstrated his utter contempt for the rule of law and the oversight role of the Congress in American government, it’s even worse to see those among them who are abdicating their own part in this government, apparently without a fight.

The Constitution gives the House the responsibility to impeach a president or other government official, and the Senate the role of jury in a trial of the president presided over by the chief justice of the United States.  So how, in the name of all that’s right and moral and legal and American, can the man who leads the majority in the U.S. Senate say he will work with the White House counsel to arrange the details of the trial?  And do it like it’s no big deal?!  We know that the chances of the Senate convicting Trump are microscopic, but what are we supposed to think now about the fairness of this proceeding, or the honesty with which the senators will consider the evidence, when the jury foreman announced in advance that his team will work hand-in-hand with the defense lawyers?

If anything, Mitch McConnell should be coordinating trial details with the Democratic leader in the Senate.  On Monday came the news that Charles Schumer wrote to McConnell proposing a framework for the trial, including the names of a handful of witnesses who never testified to the House investigators, people he would like to hear from in the Senate trial.  McConnell dismissed the idea; he even said there would be no witnesses.  We can, and should, speculate about the reason for that stance; I think he’s worried that his members might not be able to countenance their support of Trump if they heard what Mick Mulvaney and John Bolton would say under oath.

Or is McConnell kidding himself when he thinks he’s going to be in charge? In Slate, Bruce Ackerman argues that the Senate can’t bar any witness, that it’s up to the House and the president—the prosecution and the defense—to decide those things.  And most importantly, that it will be the presiding judge—Chief Justice John Roberts—who will run the court.

Once John Roberts replaces Vice President Mike Pence as the Senate’s presiding officer, McConnell’s attempt to change the rules would generate a constitutional crisis. As I have noted, the rules explicitly give Roberts, and nobody else, the power to “direct all forms of the proceedings.” If McConnell tried to seize control, Roberts could refuse to allow the Senate to vote on his initiative, especially if McConnell proposed rule changes that were inconsistent with Roberts’ pledge “to do impartial justice.”

(snip)

The chief justice is a serious jurist, dedicated to sustaining the Supreme Court’s central position in our system of checks and balances. His impartial conduct of the trial is especially crucial in the aftermath of the blatant partisanship displayed by McConnell and the Senate during the confirmation battle over Brett Kavanaugh. With this episode vividly in the public mind, it is imperative for Roberts to demonstrate, by his actions, that he takes the Constitution seriously and is not merely serving as a pawn in McConnell’s scheme to guarantee an acquittal.

If the majority leader did make an effort to change the rules midstream, this would serve as Roberts’ moment of truth: Will he demonstrate to the tens of millions of viewers that he is determined to put the Constitution above bitter partisan conflict?

Given Roberts’ repeated efforts to sustain the court’s legitimacy in the past, there is every reason to expect him to stand his ground and refuse to allow McConnell’s motion to be considered on the floor. If McConnell continued to defy Roberts and insisted that his colleagues back him up, it seems highly unlikely that his fellow Republicans would provide him with the bare majority needed to provide appropriate window dressing for his attempted constitutional coup.

This week began with news that 750 historians believe Trump should be impeached, and that a Fox News poll found half the country thinks Trump should be impeached.  This poll also finds Trump would lose the popular vote in November to Biden, or Warren, or Sanders, or Buttigieg, or even Bloomberg.  But for me, the best part of that story was seeing the Fox & Friends contingent so thoroughly gobsmacked to have to learn that their own network’s poll had such bad news for their guy…it revealed at least a little of the subconscious understanding on their part that their company’s preferred role is pimping Trump rather than doing journalism.  Another interesting consideration was raised by Charles P. Pierce, who makes the case that the Republican Party is the only organization—anywhere—that has a chance to save the republic.

What if, I think to myself, what if the Republicans have a plan: what if they’ve lulled Trump in with their obsequiousness and shameless praise—the kind of stuff that Trump so clearly loves and encourages—and when it comes right down to a vote, what if they surprise the crap out of all of us and vote to remove him from office?  Can we rely on a sudden tsunami of personal conscience, or love of country, or just plain old fear for how they will be remembered by history, to save the day?  Maybe they will see just one too many examples of Trump’s childish temperament, like his unhinged letter to Nancy Pelosi yesterday, and decide they’ve had enough.

They could just finally get fed up with the president’s obstruction of justice, and obstruction of Congress.  Of them.  No other president I can think of has ever so publicly dissed Congress, and thumbed his nose at the law, as has this one.  (On this point, Trump may accurately claim to be the best in history.)  Congress has a right to ask for, and receive, cooperation from the Executive Branch in its investigations.  Though there are exceptions for withholding some information—executive privilege—the people who get Congressional subpoenas have a duty to honor them.  Maybe they refuse to answer questions when they get there, but they have a duty to answer the call of the Congress.  In ordering the people in his administration not to do so, Trump effectively said to Congress: uh, f*** you losers, make me if you can.  And yet, most of the Republican members of Congress still stand up for him, rather than stand up to him.  Go figure.

Anyhow, the House vote to impeach Trump is important.  It matters that we have members of Congress who are standing up to the bully, reminding him and us that abiding by the rules and laws and traditions of this country is expected.  The oath those members took was to defend the Constitution “against all enemies, foreign and domestic,” and they should be faithful to that promise.  And if Trump is not removed by the Senate, there are still options.  One is that the House could delay sending the impeachment to the Senate until senators agree to conduct a fair trial: this would keep McConnell from fixing the outcome of the trial while the House keeps the focus on Trump’s bad deeds, which could keep pressure on Republicans to abandon Trump as the Republicans of 1974 finally abandoned Richard Nixon.

Another option is pouring everything into defeating Trump at the polls in 2020.  This week a group of Republicans announced the Lincoln Project dedicated to defeating “Trump and Trumpism at the ballot box.”  The organizers wrote about their effort in the New York Times, and didn’t sugarcoat the fact that Trump is not the only name they are targeting for defeat:

Patriotism and the survival of our nation in the face of the crimes, corruption and corrosive nature of Donald Trump are a higher calling than mere politics. As Americans, we must stem the damage he and his followers are doing to the rule of law, the Constitution and the American character.

That’s why we are announcing the Lincoln Project, an effort to highlight our country’s story and values, and its people’s sacrifices and obligations. This effort transcends partisanship and is dedicated to nothing less than preservation of the principles that so many have fought for, on battlefields far from home and within their own communities.

This effort asks all Americans of all places, creeds and ways of life to join in the seminal task of our generation: restoring to this nation leadership and governance that respects the rule of law, recognizes the dignity of all people and defends the Constitution and American values at home and abroad.

(snip)

…national Republicans have done far worse than simply march along to Mr. Trump’s beat. Their defense of him is imbued with an ugliness, a meanness and a willingness to attack and slander those who have shed blood for our country, who have dedicated their lives and careers to its defense and its security, and whose job is to preserve the nation’s status as a beacon of hope.

Congressional Republicans have embraced and copied Mr. Trump’s cruelty and defended and even adopted his corruption. Mr. Trump and his enablers have abandoned conservatism and longstanding Republican principles and replaced it with Trumpism, an empty faith led by a bogus prophet.

(snip)

Mr. Trump and his fellow travelers daily undermine the proposition we as a people have a responsibility and an obligation to continually bend the arc of history toward justice. They mock our belief in America as something more meaningful than lines on a map.

(snip)

We look to [Abraham] Lincoln as our guide and inspiration. He understood the necessity of not just saving the Union, but also of knitting the nation back together spiritually as well as politically. But those wounds can be bound up only once the threat has been defeated. So, too, will our country have to knit itself back together after the scourge of Trumpism has been overcome.

A seemingly well organized effort, with some serious money already committed: Republicans out to convince other Republicans to fight Trump and those of their own party who enable him.  They expect that will mean Republican losses in the next election, but believe that to be preferable to another four years of Trumpism.  The polls indicate that most Americans agree, if not most Republicans.

Oh, for a little straight talk now that spring is in the air

The political reaction to the death of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia is the clearest evidence I’ve seen lately of the sclerotic thinking that passes for wisdom and strategy in American politics.  Not saying I’m surprised, mind you, just saying.

Don’t get me wrong: every vacancy on the Supreme Court of the the United States, ever, has been the occasion for political plotting and pontificating…that’s the nature of the beast.  Maybe there was more lip service paid in the past to observing “a decent interval” before going public, but we know that one reason the successful professional political players are successful is that they don’t let an opportunity to gain advantage go to waste.  In this case, Scalia’s body hadn’t made it home to Virginia before Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell announced his intention to block anyone nominated by President Obama in the hope that a Republican wins the presidency this November.

Why?  Because “The American people should have a voice in the selection of the next Supreme Court justice”?  Excuse me, Mr. Majority Leader and avowed Obstructionist-of-Obama-in-Chief, but that’s not the way it’s done and we all know it.

There isn’t—or shouldn’t be—any disagreement on the facts: the Constitution gives this president the responsibility to nominate a new justice in this case, not the next president; many of the same Republican senators now insisting that the process must be put on hold for the good of the nation had very different opinions when the question came up during the last few months of George W. Bush’s presidency.  (Yes, plenty of Democrats have more than a passing acquaintance with hypocrisy as a political tool, too, starting with Chuck Schumer on this same topic eight years ago; I’m sure some of you have more examples.)  Also true is that the Constitution gives responsibility to the Senate to approve or reject that nominee, with no timetable or deadline for doing so.

There’s no question that McConnell and the Republican majority have no legal requirement to approve President Obama’s nominee, or even to put the nomination to a vote.  They may make the political calculation that stonewalling for a year is the better path: bet on winning the White House and holding the Senate so they can have their pick of ultraconservative judges, versus running the risk of losing both and allowing the Democrats to choose another Douglas or Brennan (if one can be found).  I wish they would just say so, instead of going to the well for another round of the Obama Apocalypse that (inexplicably) plays so well with a certain portion of the electorate.  Andrew Prokop at Vox.com wrote them a first draft of such a speech:

Justice Scalia was a strong, solid conservative. And whoever Barack Obama nominates to replace him is certain to be well to his left — and will likely be very, very, very far to his left.

This would upset a balance of power in the Court that has existed for decades. Instead of a five-vote majority that is generally conservative, a Scalia replacement appointed by President Obama would allow a new majority bloc of five solid liberals to form. On issues affecting free enterprise, the sanctity of human life, and federal power, sweeping new liberal rulings could reshape law and precedent across America.

I believe this would be a disaster for the country. Most members of my party believe this would be a disaster for the country. And most of my party’s voters believe it would be a disaster for the country.

So I’m going to do my best to stop it from happening.

(snip)

…in suggesting that President Obama shouldn’t appoint any replacement for Scalia, and that he should just leave it to the next president, I am rhetorically going further than others have in the past.

But really I’ve just hit the fast-forward button. We would have ended up opposing whomever Obama nominated, because that person would, of course, have had liberal views. And my party’s senators would never have approved any other Obama Supreme Court nominee anyway, because they’re terrified of losing their seats in primaries.

So maybe my “no nominees in the final year” position hasn’t explicitly been taken by anyone before, but it hardly means the death of our constitutional democracy. The near-term upshot is that one Supreme Court seat stays vacant for a year. Some closely divided cases will effectively remain unresolved for a bit. Big deal.

It’s a shame to think that I think like this

But, I do: I was surprised—pleasantly surprised—to see the headline “Ted Cruz, Newt Gingrich Defend Mandela Against GOP Critics.”

My new senator hasn’t impressed me much, not during the campaign last year or since he’s been in office.  He’s been unapologetic up to now at toeing the ultraconserative Tea Party line, pandering to some of the least “American” elements in American society…the very people who are criticizing him now for his glowing praise for Nelson Mandela: “He endured decades of imprisonment and steadfastly continued his fight for equality.  And, when justice prevailed in his battle against apartheid, and Mandela was elected president of his nation, he nobly chose reconciliation instead of retribution — a legacy for which he will be remembered forever.”  Cruz is even making the trip to South Africa for the Mandela memorial as part of a congressional delegation.

When I saw the headline I thought, “Cruz disagreed with the right-wing fringe?  Did I read that right?”  Sure enough…and now it turns out that, not only do I share an opinion on an issue with Ted Cruz, but I have to add a new exercise to my workout: fighting the urge to jump to conclusions.

Oh, would you look at what those crazy Americans have done now‏

Finding a new angle for a story is one good way to shed light on an event so a reader can see aspects that have been obscured by the shadows of unfamiliarity, ignorance or prejudice.  Today in Slate they wrote up the Senate’s filibuster-ending vote in the style of U.S. journalists when they are writing about other countries around the world; imagine just how stupid we may look to others:

WASHINGTON, United States—In what analysts are calling a landmark step on the country’s path toward representative democracy, the U.S. government agreed today to allow most appointments to high offices to be approved by a majority vote. However, opposition lawmakers are crying foul, arguing that the change will allow the country’s embattled leader to seize more power.

And, if you enjoy the opportunity to see a politician talk out of both sides of his mouth, here’s your chance: in 2005, Senator Barack Obama explains why the Republican majority in the Senate of the time should not tamper with the filibuster rule, precisely the thing the Democratic majority did today.

Obama 2005

I know we can make the arguments for and against this change to Senate rules; personally, I think protecting the rights of the minority from the tyrannical majority is a good thing, but I also think that the minority should have to actually take the floor and keep speaking in order to block action on appointments or legislation, not just threaten to do so.  But I hope we could look at ourselves honestly—all of us as a group, not just our political opponents—and see the ridiculous state that we’ve reached in our politics.

It’s not as hard as I thought it would be to praise Congress for doing its job

The Senate took action first, agreeing on spending authorizations to keep the government operating until the end of the fiscal year; the House did the same the next day. Thing is, they both did what needed to be done more than a week before the drop-dead-line that would have seen the government start to shut down for lack of operating funds. How uncharacteristic of them.

In the past few years the American Congress has never missed an opportunity to run right up to the brink of any fiscal catastrophe; like the Road Runner being chased by Wile E. Coyote, it safely came to a screeching standstill in a cloud of dust just on the edge of the abyss (beep beep). To what do we owe this unusual display of fiscal responsibility? I don’t know, but I’d like to order another round.

It had become too easy and too predictable for the thousands and thousands of voices online and on air and in print to chastise House and Senate, Republican and Democrat, for failing/refusing to take care of business. I’d begun to think it was ultimately ineffective as well, but maybe–just maybe–there was still some shard of humanness left deep inside our elected representatives that was tired of being ridiculed and abused, that knew that the voices raised in criticism had a point. It’s not that I’m pleased with the details of the budget the government will operate under for the next six months, but that I’m pleased “the government” got off of its ass and made a decision with something less than the usual quotient of bluster and drama…the “sound and fury” that, as is often the case in our politics, signifies nothing.

So, good on ’em for what they done (there, I said it; are you happy?). And fine, let them go ahead and propose future budgets, have debates and secret meetings and public hearings and horse-trading and try to persuade us all of the virtue of their ideas; that’s the way we’re supposed to try to come to a consensus on public issues. Just because I don’t have the heart or the stomach for this circus right now doesn’t mean the rest of you should miss out on the fun.