Watergate, Impeachment and the Bigger Issue

By Mike Koetting October 17, 2019

In the fall of 1973, I lived in a house with five other young people. One of our few house rituals was Saturday night TV—Mary Tyler Moore and Bob Newhart. On October 20, our television shows were interrupted by the announcement that Richard Nixon wanted to fire the Special Prosecutor and that Attorney General Elliott Richardson and his deputy, William Ruckelshaus, had resigned rather than carry out the order, which Robert Bork eventually did.

We were overcome with a mixture of white rage and frustrated helplessness to the point that we started to talk about where we could get guns. On the one hand, we knew the conversation was absurd. On the other hand, that was the only way we could give voice to the outrage we felt over the violence being done to our notion of how America should work.

I think it unlikely that people younger than us can understand how wrenching that experience was. It was such a significant violation of the rules of the game that we assumed for our country that we were at a loss for a more reasonable response. This sort of stuff happened in Russia, in third world banana republics, but not America. Since then, I believe, Americans have really lost the sense of the exceptionalism that our generation was raised on. Cynicism about the means and methods of government is today more easily accepted in America, probably assumed by a material part of the population.

Nevertheless, all the feeling of anger and frustration came flooding back—absent the gun-foolishness—when I saw this headline in the Chicago Tribune.

I spent the next hour in a bundle of aggrieved agitation. Then I realized that as clearly as I remembered how upset we were that night in 1973, I could hardly remember anything of what happened between then and Nixon’s eventual helicopter ride from the White House. I remembered other things—teaching, eating with housemates, tumultuous love life, etc. But the impeachment politics seems to have faded into the background.

I had to consult Wikipedia to get a timeline to remind me what did happen from there until Nixon actually resigned. I also was reminded that, despite numerous convictions of co-conspirators, Nixon might have gotten off if not for the tapes which created a “smoking gun” that was simply too blatant to be argued away.

So I guess it is somewhere between okay and inevitable that we all take a deep breath and let events unfold. No matter how much House Democrats say they are going to move the investigation expeditiously, there will be lawsuits, reluctant witnesses, ambiguous evidence and so and so forth. This will drag on.

Moreover, lacking an absolutely, unambiguous “smoking gun,” it is unlikely the Republican Senate will in fact vote to remove Trump. Which, really, is incredulous. Trump is a clearer and more present danger than Nixon ever was. He has shown no ability to understand the realities of his office—domestically or internationally, he has made blatant mockery of the idea that political discourse should be based on some modicum of fact or requires any civility toward or respect for opponents, he has surrounded himself with unvarnished opportunists, and he has reveled in deepening the divides in our culture to an extent not even Nixon could have imagined. And, yes, he doesn’t really respect the laws of the land in letter let alone in spirit.

I am not particularly worried about not actually removing Trump from office via impeachment. I think removing him now is the right thing and would be good for the country. Although it would raise howls in some circles, it would stop some of the damage. Perhaps more importantly, because it would happen only if enough Republican senators concurred that this was appropriate, there would be a basis for some beginning of national unity. In any event, if he is not removed sooner, he will either be removed via the ballot box next November, or the country I grew up with is doomed anyway.

My more immediate worry is that the constant droning of wrongdoing erodes any confidence in the idea of governing as a crucial pursuit for a society. People start to hear the news as a description of a “Game of Thrones” series that they have chosen not to watch because it is not as seductive as a made for TV drama.

In an all too good New York Times opinion piece, Peter Pomerantsev points out that Trump, like Putin, has focused less on suggesting he has ideological underpinnings, so much as presenting an image of the world as a totally corrupt, dog-eat-dog world, where government is unlikely to do anything for the little guy…so the only hope is that there will be a strong ruler who minimizes the chaos and throws an occasional bone their way. The interminable news stories outlining charges and counter-charges fits right into such a narrative.

The fact that our national governing bodies are constructed in such a way that a minority—even if unable to enact an agenda of its own—can keep any agenda from being enacted, has created a situation where government is unable to act decisively. Even, as in the case of the ACA, where it is possible to muster a narrow legislative majority, the guerilla action of the minority party is able to paint the enterprise in a way that contributes to national discord rather than any sense of government efficacy. Which is pretty astounding when you think about it, since the positive contributions of the ACA outweigh its problems by an empirically undeniable margin. People should be celebrating in the street. Instead, the sense of ongoing stalemate in the face of real and difficult issues makes it harder for many people to take government seriously.

As a Washington Post opinion piece recently suggests, the problem is less policy and more cynicism that anything can really be accomplished. Scott Stantis, the brilliant creator of Prickly City comics, makes the point graphically.

This is particularly unfortunate because the problems facing America today more than ever require an engaged and functional national government. The environment, inequality, immigration, foreign policy, defense, the future of work, and the aging of our society simply cannot be addressed by local governments, let alone by capitalism not guided by some kind of societal framework.

“Government is not the solution but it is the problem,” is the most destructive thing uttered by any recent American president. Government is neither a solution or a problem. It is a mechanism by which the people come together to work out common solutions to problems that are too big for them to handle individually. Republicans or Democrats, conservatives or progressives, all need functioning government to carry out any agenda. Simply deciding to duck all the hard problems is not an agenda.

No one ever promised that this would be easy or that the solutions would be perfect or that everyone would be happy. Historically, one of the best things about America has been its pragmatic willingness to adapt and try new solutions as old ones weakened or attitudes changed. But we are at a crossroads.

Unless you believe that the above problems will be solved by themselves, losing faith in the ability of government to develop and carry out effective policies is tantamount to saying that these problems can’t be solved in a democratic context. I suspect more people than will admit it are willing to give up on the democratic proposition to solve these problems, or, at least, help insulate themselves from their consequences. But that’s hardly a satisfying conclusion.

I am optimistic that for the time being we have dodged the bullet of that question because Donald Trump is neither a genius nor stable. But simply getting rid of Trump won’t solve the underlying problem of a diminishing faith in the ability of democratic government as a way to address our problems. In fact, the process of getting rid of him may even contribute to a loss of confidence in government in some circles.

We have a lot of work ahead of us.

Author: mkbhhw

Mike Koetting’s career has been in health care policy and administration. But it has always been on the fringes of politics. His first job out of graduate school was conducting an evaluation of the Illinois Medicaid program for the Illinois Legislative Budget Office. In the following 40 years, he has been a health care provider, a researcher, a teacher, a regulator, a consultant and a payor. The biggest part of his career was 24 years as Vice President of Planning for the University of Chicago Medical Center. He retired from there in 2008, but in 2010 was asked to implement the ACA Medicaid expansion in Illinois, which kept him busy for another 5 years.

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