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Impeachment Hangs on Whether Trump’s Actions Were Illegal or Merely Ugly (Washington Examiner) November 8, 2019

Posted by daviddavenport in Op/Eds.

In the first 175 years of the Republic, the House of Representatives impeached only one president, Andrew Johnson. Now, in the last 57 years, we have impeached two presidents, Richard Nixon and Bill Clinton, and are on the verge of impeaching a third. It’s worth considering the modern rise in impeachments: Are presidents really that much worse, or is something larger afoot?

We normally evaluate a president’s performance through elections. We are continuously shown opinion polls about what people think of President Trump and impeachment, but impeachment is not a popularity contest. The people’s view properly comes to the fore a year from now in the 2020 election.

Let’s keep these two accountability measures straight: Elections are for the people to express a judgment and preference, but impeachment is a constitutional question for the two branches of Congress to decide.

Compared to the normal recourse for presidential failures through an election, impeachment is an extraordinary measure. It is based on a high standard spelled out in the Constitution: “High crimes and misdemeanors.” And, at least for 175 years, it was used incredibly sparingly.

So what has changed?

Well, for one thing, everything a president says and does may now appear in a public record. A phone call with a foreign leader would have been private in an earlier time, but not today. That does not justify anything a president says and does, but politics is an ugly business, including global politics.

A quid pro quo in foreign policy? Hardly shocking. I’m sure it happens all the time. We may not like it, might even want to vote against it, but does it really rise to the high bar of an extraordinary remedy for “high crimes and misdemeanors?”

Or, to take a different angle, today everything is seen as extraordinary and we demand immediate action. Lacking political patience, we jump to extraordinary remedies because we can.

The textbook case of rushing to extraordinary remedies came in California 16 years ago when, having just elected Gov. Gray Davis to a new term, his opponents turned around, got enough ballot signatures, and put him on the ballot to be recalled.

Why? Because they could. The joke was that if you put “none of the above” on a ballot, that would win, so it was easier to get a negative vote through a recall than to beat him head-to-head. So we can’t wait a year to judge Trump in the election?

Finally, what has changed is that our politics and policymaking have become political theater and war. We no longer debate and deliberate over the best policies, rather we use executive orders and party-line votes to impose the will of the party in power. We declare “war” on policy problems and enact national emergencies. The Senate, historically called the world’s greatest deliberative body, hardly deliberates at all anymore.

Now, votes in Washington are not about finding the best policy or even doing the right thing. They are political theater, the point of which is to please and energize your base, raise more money, win elections, and stay in power.

You could tell that Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi was not eager to pick this impeachment fight a year before the election, but her base more or less demanded it, just as Trump is stirring up his base for the coming political war. This impeachment battle, sadly, is more about the politics of war than about meeting a constitutional standard or doing the right thing.

Willie Brown, the former speaker of the California Assembly and former mayor of San Francisco, is still an insightful political observer. A few years ago, when federal prosecutors wanted to go after former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich for involving politics in the replacement of former President Barack Obama in the Senate, Brown warned that politics was a crazy business (I would say ugly) and that there always has been plenty of “this for that talk,” but that doesn’t make it illegal.

That is pretty much where we are today. Politics has once again revealed itself to be ugly, and many people don’t like it. However, that does not make it illegal or a reason to choose an extraordinary remedy rather than allowing the people to decide in the next election.

David Davenport is a contributor to the Washington Examiner’s Beltway Confidential blog. He is a research fellow at the Hoover Institution. He is the co-author, with Gordon Lloyd, of How Public Policy Became War, published May 7.

To read the column at the Washington Examiner:


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