Thanksgiving is gone and no thanks were given for the House Democrats’ unfolding plan for a quick, tidy, Christmas-wrapped impeachment package. Why are they doing it like this? What are they thinking? Why not take the fight to the president on all the available grounds? What is the rationale for a rushed process based on a fraction of presidential infractions? Why deliberately give up control of the narrative when you have mountains of evidence on your side?
That’s where the Democrats appear to be taking us. At this point, no one knows how it will turn out, and I long to be wrong in my apprehensions. But there’s not much to work with here. Democratic leaders don’t even explain their thinking publicly. The state of play as this is written seems unchanged from what CNN reported November 21:
Privately, Democrats are anticipating a busy December that will be filed with proceedings before the House Judiciary Committee, including public hearings and a markup, and a likely vote to impeach Trump on the House floor by Christmas Day, according to multiple Democratic sources, which would make him just the third President in history to be impeached.
The American political system needs a good flushing. The Democrats’ plan seems almost designed to avoid any such cleansing. As December begins, there are no articulated impeachable offenses on offer. There is strong testimony and other evidence of the president trying to coerce Ukraine into helping his 2020 campaign. But there is massive avoidance of all the president’s other violations of the Constitution, the law, his oath of office, and the common good. This is not shaping up as a systematic defense of constitutional government so much as a drive-by shouting that can get widely ignored amidst holiday distractions. Worse, this non-plan plan appears to represent a broad consensus of Democratic conventional wisdom.
The multi-talented and insightful New Yorker editor David Remnick provides a curious but hardly unusual example of how hard it can be to maintain the conventional wisdom in the midst of wildly unconventional circumstances. In the online version of his piece titled “The Sober Clarity of the Impeachment Witness” from the November 25 New Yorker, Remnick concludes:
Impeachment is a grave business, and the risks are manifest. But no democracy can overlook evidence of abuse of power, bribery, and obstruction in the hope that an election will set things right.
These hearings and a potential Senate trial will never get to the full range of Donald Trump’s corruptions, be they on Fifth Avenue or Pennsylvania Avenue, in Istanbul, Moscow, or Riyadh. But the focus of Congress is on this particular and outrageous abuse of the public trust, and for now that must suffice.
In these two paragraphs, Remnick first gets it exactly right, then gets it exactly wrong. He is right that no constitutional government like ours can overlook the vast variety of Trumpian abuses and still hope to be a constitutional government with any integrity left. Remnick is also right that House hearings and a Senate trial, as currently contemplated, cannot do justice to the offenses of the past three years. And then he gets it completely wrong with the solemn sophistry of assurance that “for now that must suffice.” He has already argued correctly that it cannot suffice. Claiming that it “must suffice” is tantamount to giving up without a fight.
There is no “must” inherent in the current Congressional rush to evade responsibility for confronting the overwhelming catalog of presidential offenses. We all know there is serious work to be done in a meaningful impeachment process, work that needs serious people to do it. We also know that, so far at least, those people have not emerged. (Remnick must know that, too – the print version title of his piece was “Impeachment Whirlwind.”) This holiday whirlwind of an impeachment is unworthy of a competent society. We’re long past the time when America needed lengthy, serious self-examination if the people are ever going to free themselves from the arbitrary and ruthless control of war-makers, torturers, assassins, oligarchs, and their submissive political lackeys.
David Remnick is one of the more impressive people on the planet, with a long and exemplary body of work. For someone of his capabilities to get this historical moment so wrong is a measure of just how deep the American crisis has become. Concerning the sufficiency of the current rush to impeachment, he is just wrong. With the fate of the nation at stake, he is mindlessly, needlessly wrong. There is, in fact, no hurry whatsoever about bringing articles of impeachment to a vote any time soon – or ever. The constitutional process is there to be used as suits the purpose of national integrity. Sending half-baked, Ukraine-based, partisan-infected impeachment articles to a Senate likely to reject them is a pretty good recipe for maintaining the corrupt American norms of recent decades.
Exercising conventional wisdom is a good way to get conventional results. Limiting the charges against this president is a form of tunnel vision that serves to protect past and future presidents who have or will commit the Trumplike offenses that go unexamined in this process. The current Congressional plan is an elaborate and fundamentally deceitful exercise in thinking inside the box. Whose box is it, where it’s OK to turn impeachment into a farcical failure? It’s not the box of national honor.
Maybe impeachment won’t play out as the Democrats are presently promising. Maybe the weight of reality will change the dynamic. Maybe a courageous House member or several will insist on a comprehensive, principled, open-ended examination of presidential corruption of all sorts, foreign and domestic. Maybe that will keep House committees busy for months, even past the November election. Maybe a Democratic presidential primary race with impeachable offenses for a context will produce a more substantive contest than we’re used to. Maybe such a race would produce a serious candidate actually committed to positive change. Maybe it’s worth the risk of actually following procedures that address the gravity of our shared reality. Maybe we can do better than a hurried, politically-motivated, substance-avoiding crapshoot that offers no serious likelihood of meaningful change. Maybe the American people would respond well to a party that decided to stand for principle and demonstrated the willingness to put the national wellbeing ahead of narrow partisan advantage. Seems worth the risk, but what do I know?
About author William M. Boardman has over 40 years experience in theatre, radio, TV, print journalism, and non-fiction, including 20 years in the Vermont judiciary. He has received honors from Writers Guild of America, Corporation for Public Broadcasting, Vermont Life magazine, and an Emmy Award nomination from the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences.