WESTCHESTER COUNTY, NY — December 23, 2019 — Today’s column is really three separate columns in one, since the law of impeachment and the politics of impeachment are different discussions, and apart from them is a big existential question the country faces. So, let’s proceed.
The Law of Impeachment
The impeachment case brought by the House of Representatives is legally thinner than it ought to be, because the evidence is thinner than it ought to be.
The heart of the first part of the indictment is that Trump took official action in his own political interest, thereby damaging the national interest and the rights of particular Americans. That seems to be true, but absent the sworn testimony of former national security adviser John Bolton, acting chief of staff Mick Mulvaney, and others who may have the most direct knowledge of the matter, much rests on inferences and what one thinks of Trump’s character.
That inexorably leads us to the second part of the indictment, alleging that Trump disrupted the legitimate exercise of congressional oversight by refusing to produce evidence and witnesses who could confirm or deny his abuse of power in Ukraine.
The Politics of Impeachment
This is the kind of political mess that echoes down the halls of history. Some Democrats — not many, but some — reached for impeachment early out of justified anger at the many and disgusting outrages and lies that Trump embraces. This is not the party of Jefferson, Kennedy and Obama. Almost all Republicans ignore the impeachable conduct out of a tribal loyalty to a leader with authoritarian and reactionary tendencies. This is not the party of Lincoln, Roosevelt and McCain.
Both factions have disserved the nation. But the way we conduct politics has changed forever. The unspoken rules of past political culture are gone and there is nothing available to take their place other than ferocity and social media. It will take some getting used to and it will not be enjoyable.
There Are Only Two Ways Out
Sometimes a charismatic leader emerges who is grounded in democratic norms and the rule of law, and can manage a crisis and remain faithful to the Constitution. Think of Lincoln or FDR. But it will be hard to find such again.
More likely, the changing national demographics will eventually override the consequences of the Electoral College and a Senate dominated by small states.
That could come in 2020 or it could take a decade. But it will come. The damage that will be done in the interim is unknown.
As it should be, the politics of impeachment will be clear only after the 2020 election is decided. Did impeachment help or hurt Trump? Are there any undecided voters left? Should the fate of the nation be left to a few thousand voters in Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania?
The rule of law matters more than any particular policy or election.
The emergence of authoritarian executives can only be resisted by a combination of legislative power and democratic norms supported by the populace.
There remains an American majority committed to constitutional democracy. This includes progressives, conservatives, Democrats and Republicans. We do not currently have ways to bring them together in the name of the nation.
Impeachment is illuminating profound changes long in the making. It will not be easy to survive.
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Richard Brodsky is a former state Assembly member.
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Original publication by Times-Union on December 22, 2019