High Stakes Impeachment Poker

Charles Lipson is a respected U. of Chicago political scientist who writes disapassionately and insightfully about the zero sum impeachment game under way in Washingston DC. He provides multiple perspectives in his article published at Real Clear Politics: The Democrats’ High-Risk Gamble on Impeachment. Excerpts in italics with my bolds and images.

Democrats and Deep State Are All In

The Democrats’ activist base considers Donald Trump fundamentally unfit to hold office. Their impeachment drive is really about this damning judgment, not about any specific act such as withholding Ukrainian aid or wanting to fire Special Counsel Robert Mueller. They say Trump is erratic, narcissistic, self-serving, and unforgivably gauche. He cozies up to dictators and would like to become one himself. Every day, he tramples the presidency’s historic norms. Surely the voters who put him there made a catastrophic error, or, rather, the antiquated Electoral College did. In short, Trump is not just a bad president — the worst in modern history — he is an illegitimate and dangerous one, at home and abroad.

Their harsh view is no masquerade. It is sincere, deeply held, and shared by most elected Democrats. Many, perhaps most, career civil servants agree and consider the president only nominally their boss. That’s why they consider it their constitutional duty to hold him in check. That’s why former heads of the CIA openly praised the “Deep State,” why former FBI Director James Comey wanted his agents to monitor the president in the White House itself. If that means targeting Trump and his key aides for disguised FBI interviews or leaking classified phone calls, so be it. The fight over the Deep State is partly about this profound distrust of Trump (and his distrust of them) and partly about the president’s rising opposition to a century of progressive legislation, executive orders, and court decisions, which grant extensive power to government bureaucrats.

This revulsion is the backdrop to the Democrats’ impeachment effort and the earlier appointment of a special counsel. The crucial point is this: Democrats see the actions they have investigated for three years less as specific crimes and more as steadily accumulating evidence of Trump’s unfitness for office and his repeated violation of his oath, as they understand it. “Democrats of all stripes look at Donald Trump’s business and personal history and see a man who serially does not follow laws and therefore should not be president,” said one well-informed Democrat. For his party, “Ukraine is a big deal because it confirms this view.”

Pelosi Is Playing Several Angles

Although House Speaker Nancy Pelosi shares those sentiments, she is too shrewd, too experienced to be carried away by her party’s most rabid voices. She is also too vulnerable to ignore them. The loudest voices come from deep-blue districts, but she needs to win purple ones, too, to keep her majority. That’s why impeachment has twin goals: to appease the party’s activist base (in Congress and the primaries) and to win the general election by damaging Trump and his Republican allies.

There are other possible goals. One is to sink moderate Senate Republicans in close 2020 races, which could flip control if Democrats win in Maine, Colorado, Arizona, and North Carolina and hold onto other seats. Another is keeping Joe Biden’s rivals, particularly Sen. Elizabeth Warren, frozen in Washington for a Senate trial during the early primaries. National Democrats, led by Pelosi, are deeply worried that Warren, if she is the nominee, will not only lose the presidency but cost them heavily down the ballot. A third is to distract from Inspector General Michael Horowitz’s upcoming report on possible surveillance abuse by senior Obama appointees.

Still, Pelosi’s highest priorities are retaining her position as speaker and, if possible, retaking the White House. Only then would winning the Senate give the Democrats true governing power.

Enormous Downside Risk

The downside of this impeachment gamble is painfully obvious. Without substantially more evidence against Trump, Democrats cannot win overwhelming public support and, without that, they won’t come close to the two-thirds vote in the Senate needed to remove the president. If the upper chamber doesn’t convict, voters are bound to ask why Democrats have spent the past four years on this fruitless quest and neglected their other duties. What legislative accomplishments can they highlight for voters next November? Hardly any. Only a big sign saying “The Resistance.”

How well is this gamble going? Still too early to tell. Recent polls show about half the country now favors impeachment and removal, but, significantly, the president’s numbers are about 10 percentage points better in vital swing states. Rank-and-file Republicans and their officeholders are still solidly behind the president. The big unknown is what effect public hearings and a Senate trial will have.

To remove a president, the Democrats need strong bipartisan support, both among voters and in Congress. They don’t have it. One big problem is that so many Democrats and their media allies have cried “wolf” before. Indeed, they have cried it continually since Trump was elected. The second problem is House Democrats have conducted the inquiry behind closed doors and withheld the transcripts for weeks (only now, under pressure, are they beginning to release them). They’ve made up the rules as they go, refusing to let Republicans call witnesses, refusing to let the president’s lawyers ask questions or even observe the process. Why? No good answers have been provided, nor for why the investigation is being held in a secure room by the Intelligence Committee. Hiding it in the basement is a sad metaphor for what should be a public process. After all, the materials are not classified, and the Judiciary Committee has handled every previous impeachment. The more partisan the process, the less bipartisan and legitimate the outcome.

Republicans See A Rigged Witch Hunt in Process

To Republicans, the impeachment drive looks less like a somber, quasi-judicial proceeding and more like something concocted by Dean Wormer to expel John Belushi’s “Bluto” Blutarsky and Delta House from Faber College. The House rules are ad hoc inventions. The secret hearings, scheduled by Chairman Adam Schiff, can continue as long as he wants, calling only his witnesses. He will then write a report, saying the evidence was appalling and unrefuted, and hand everything over to the Judiciary Committee to conduct public hearings. If Chairman Jerrold Nadler’s previous hearings are any guide, they will quickly descend into an ugly street brawl.

It’s not hard for Republicans to attack this whole process as fundamentally unfair. They say, rightly, that it violates the most basic tenets of Anglo-Saxon jurisprudence:

    • Accusations must be specific and backed by clear evidence;
    • All evidence and accusations must be presented in open court;
    • Rules of procedure must be fixed and unbiased, not arbitrary and ad hoc;
    • The accused is presumed innocent and must be given full rights to see all the evidence, confront the accusers, and rebut all charges, including cross-examining witnesses, challenging documents, and presenting exculpatory evidence.

None of these rules has applied to this impeachment inquiry, at least not yet.

Although impeachment is a political act, it is still governed by the constitutional requirement limiting it to “high crimes and misdemeanors,” such as treason and bribery. The Framers specifically rejected a proposal to include “malfeasance in office,” fearing it would open the process to vague charges and transform our system of divided powers into a unified parliamentary system, controlled by Congress.

White House Has to Play Both Short and Long Game

The White House cannot expect to win this battle solely by condemning it as unfair. It must ultimately frame a persuasive, substantive rebuttal to the charges leaking out of Schiff’s committee. That means convincing the public the president is innocent or, as Bill Clinton did, convincing them the charges are not serious enough to overturn an election. Trump can also say the election is so near that we should let voters decide for themselves.

For the moment, however, the White House is wise to concentrate on the unfair process. The public can assess whether those leading the inquiry are even-handed or hell-bent to remove the president. Are they giving him and his supporters a fair chance to present their side? Americans understand these basic rules. We treasure them as bulwarks of our democratic freedom. The House majority breaks them at its peril.

See also post Conrad Black: Trump is Holding the Cards


  1. beththeserf · November 6, 2019

    Planning to de-legitimise the democratic electoral process behind the scenes by orchestrating a criminal scenario, setting up a soviet-style show trial, … ‘guilty’ until found ‘guilty,’ just WHO is unfit for office here?

    Liked by 1 person

    • rw · November 9, 2019

      Exactly. If there was a legitimate concern about Trump, there wouldn’t have been all the chicanery that we’ve seen over the past 3 years, including setting up and attempting to destroy the careers of people like Papadopoulos and Flynn. These people seem to have a tremendous sense of entitlement, that Trump has intruded on and even threatened – and an antinomian attitude toward the Constitution and the rule of law.

      Liked by 1 person

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