By Mike Koetting January 24, 2021
This has been a hard blog to actually get posted. It is the fourth one I have started in the new year. Reality has simply moved too fast. It is also the case that some things on my mind were well stated by others. Two articles of particular merit are Timothy Synder’s piece in the New York Times and Dahleen Glanton’s column in the Chicago Tribune, which was like she had bugged my brain. While these are both behind paywalls, I suspect those of you who want to chase them down will find a way.
But today I want to reflect on one particular fallout from the craziness at the Capitol—the impeachment trial of Donald Trump. I am not sure this is a good idea.
This is certainly not a question of whether Donald Trump should be convicted of trying to subvert the Constitution. It is beyond question. Take it from no less an authority than Mitch McConnell:
The mob was fed lies. They were provoked by the president and other powerful people, and they tried to use fear and violence to stop a specific proceeding of the first branch of the federal government which they did not like.
If this is not a reason for convicting a president in an impeachment trial and for barring him from subsequent offices, it is hard to describe what is. A president has no more fundamental duty than to protect the institutions of democracy, a job that Donald Trump routinely flouted as it suited his own purposes. The end of his presidency only made more clear what was already obvious: the man is a menace to society, much worse than useless.
That being said, what concerns me is the question of whether the benefits of actually conducting the trial in the Senate are sufficient for the downside. I wonder whether the country would be better off if Speaker Pelosi were to simply sit on the impeachment charge and postponed an actual trial in the Senate indefinitely, although it appears that train has already left the station.
Barring some stunning developments—and it would be foolish to rule them out given the depths of Trump’s mendacity—there is a very low likelihood of 17 Republican senators actually voting to convict. So why have the trial?
There is certainly the argument that what he did should result in impeachment and failure to take that action would in some sense be a capitulation to the same cynical cowardness that has affected Republicans in failing to act against Trump’s anti-democratic shenanigans all along. Moreover, an impeachment trial would create another opportunity to highlight Trump’s improprieties, although it’s hard to imagine many people in the country who haven’t already made up their mind.
Still, even if there are not sufficient votes for a conviction, a trial would probably find at least some Republicans speaking out in support of conviction. That might chip away at the spell that has fallen over Republicans and jar a few souls loose from previous positions. We’re not talking about a lot of people, but there is never going to be a moment of universal conversion. Progress toward national unity will always be a slow rebuilding process, a few folks at a time. Maybe three or four more Republicans willing to call out Trump for what he is would start to set the stage for a Republican reconsideration of their party.
It would also force Republican senators to go on record as to whether they are willing to ignore democratic institutions. That might have implications for the 2024 national election and there may also be a few states where it makes a difference in senatorial races. Remember, senators face a different political landscape since they have to run state-wide as opposed to running gerrymandered districts that promote Republican fealty. Cory Gardner is from the same state as Lauren Boebert.
On the other hand, I see substantial downsides to an impeachment trial. I would characterize my concerns less as worrying about deepening the divide in our country—it is already plenty deep—and more about obstructing efforts to bridge the divide.
I am well beyond hoping for a mass conversion. The divide is too deep and I am not expecting a vaccine. But, as Will Rodgers said, “If you want to get out of a hole, stop digging.” President Biden clearly embraces this position, but pursuing the impeachment trial puts him in a bit of a box. He obviously can’t ignore the depths of Trump’s anti-democratic actions. But he may well have my questions as to what good comes from it. An impeachment trial presents some obvious problems for his agenda.
The first is simply a result of the fact that Congress can’t walk and chew gum at the same time. (Hell, of recent it has not been clear they can do either.) An impeachment trial will no doubt get in the way of addressing the nuts-and-bolts needs of getting the Biden administration started, most obviously confirming a cabinet.
But more importantly in my mind is that it will be a major distraction from pursuing the real essence of the Biden agenda. As I have argued before, I believe that at an ideological level the current divide is so calcified that the only way to attack it is by enacting policies that benefit the American people in ways tangible enough that they will take their foot off the ideological gas. I can imagine a series of targeted policy issues that might be sufficient to either attract enough bi-partisan support to get passed or create real problems for those Republicans who blocked them. I think the policies being pursued by Biden fill this bill. Unfortunately, my opinion of Republicans is so low, I can also imagine them attacking those proposals precisely because they understand their strategic import. And I suspect that the existence of an ongoing impeachment trial would make them much more comfortable in blocking those proposals
We have already heard the mantra: “The Democrats talk about unity in the morning when they want to create even more expenses, but in the afternoon they are trying to score political points by conducting an irrelevant attack on a president who is no longer in office.” In truth, my cynicism level is so high, I even wonder if McConnell’s statements about Trump’s impeachable offenses are a trap to lure Democrats into a swamp of an impeachment trial they cannot win. He has never said he would vote for impeachment.
It also seems to me there is something of a lost opportunity here. If there is very little chance of a vote to convict, giving up the idea in an ostentatious declaration of a desire for national unity might win more hearts than a nasty, but futile debate about impeaching a president no longer in office. Not, of course, in the media—whose incentives are more to having a gladiatorial contest that excites partisans on both sides. Another reason to wonder about the wisdom of actually conducting the trial.
My opinions notwithstanding—shocking how little attention the seats of power pay to me–it appears that the House Democrats will forward the articles of impeachment to the Senate, may have already done it by the time you read this. I assume this will put in motion the Rube Goldberg mechanisms of impeachment. Schumer and McConnell seemed to have worked out a calendar that will postpone the actual trial for a couple of weeks. Not doing so would be worse, but having the sword hang over everything isn’t a great situation either. It will certainly occupy a lot of media space and give Republicans an opportunity to cast aspersions on other expressions of unity.
So, I guess, there isn’t much to do but buckle up our seat-belts and see where this takes us. The ride will, no doubt, be bumpy.