Sunday, October 20, 2019

Why Impeachment is Worth Doing Even if it Gets us Mike Pence.

Some people have asked what is the point in impeaching Donald Trump if you will just get Mike Pence for President. 

Others have asked what legal justification there can be for impeaching Trump only when Pence to all appearances seems to have been involved in the Ukraine scheme (along with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Attorney General William Barr).

The answer to that is simple.  In the end, impeachment is political, not legal.  Politically speaking, it just is not possible to impeach the President, the Vice President, the Secretary of State, and the Attorney General.  The idea is simply too absurd to consider, especially since that would make Nancy Pelosi President.

Donald Trump is clearly the evil genius behind the whole Ukraine scheme. 

Donald Trump has also given us more than grounds to remove him under the 25th Amendment (for removing a President unfit for office).  Mike Pence has not.  Donald Trump is becoming increasingly unglued under stress and may burn the whole thing down.  Mike Pence inspires no such fears.

And finally, I will quote Matthew Yglesias on why everyone across the spectrum should vote for Hillary Clinton, with just a few nouns and pronouns changed:
[Mike Pence], for all [his] flaws, has demonstrated a basic level of competence. [He] understands how policy and government work. [He's] not openly racist; [he] hasn't encouraged street violence. There's no risk that [he] would disrupt the international order or cause an economic crisis out of pique. 
That's a really, really low bar. But it's the only bar [he] has to clear in this contest.

And a Brief Comment on Elizabeth Warren's Campaign

Donald Trump has so many faults, and is such a master of projection, that almost anything he accuses his opponent of, he is guilty of by a factor of many.

During the last election, he accused Hillary Clinton of mishandling classified information, evading disclosure laws, and using her foundation as a slush fund.  Meanwhile, he had a longstanding history of using his foundation as a slush fund and evading disclosures of all kinds.  The only reason he had never mishandle classified information was that no one was so crazy as to allow him access to it.*  Conor Friedersdorf wisely commented:
Absurdly, many seem to have convinced themselves that Trump, who won’t release his tax returns, as every presidential candidate has for decades, will be better on transparency; that a man whose finances we don’t even know, who used his charitable foundation to illegally funnel money to an attorney general investigating him for fraud, will be better on conflicts of interest; that an erratic man who blurts all manner of things out on Twitter and has shady ties to Vladimir Putin will somehow be a more trustworthy guardian of classified information.
He denounced Hillary Clinton as "Crooked Hillary."  At the same time that Trump University was facing a multi-million dollar fraud lawsuit.  Any number of investigations into Trump Enterprises has raised evidence that it was based on fraud.  He has also run a series of resorts and steered business to then while serving as President, abused classification procedures to hide politically embarrassing phone calls, intervened to obtain security clearances for cronies, and blurted out code-word level information to Russian delegates.  Also, the latest scandal has revealed that State Department employees involved were sending messages on private servers, which the last election established as the most heinous offense and American can commit.

In the current election, Joe Biden, the current front runner, has been accused of having retrograde attitudes on race and being too touchy-feely with women.  Somehow this is supposed to make us prefer an open race-baiter who brags about routine sexual assault.  And now Trump is denouncing Joe Biden because his son used his family name to obtain business opportunities. 

Kamala Harris has been denounces as an overzealous prosecutor.  Amy Klobuchar has been denounced as an abusive boss. 

But of Elizabeth Warren, Team Trump has finally come up with accusations that can't be turned against him.

It seems a safe assumption that Trump has never sought to benefit from affirmative action by claiming to be anything other than white, and that he has never alleged (truly or falsely) that he lost a job for being pregnant.

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*Some wag commented that Trump was such an obvious security risk that the only way he could ever get clearance was to be elected President.

Why Impeachment is Still Going to Be Partisan

Wow!  Developments on the impeachment have been happening very fast, faster than I could keep up.  My first thought on hearing that a whistle blower had something very inflammatory to report, on someone who was not part of the intelligence community was that it had to be either Donald Trump or William Barr.  Either Trump had done something wildly corrupt, or Barr was doing something abusive in his investigation of the Russia investigation.

The next report was that it was about a phone call with a foreign leader.  The Washington Post listed five known communications with foreign leaders in the five weeks before the whistle blower letter.  The only one that was a phone call was with Vladimir Putin, purportedly about wildfires in Siberia.  So I guessed that it was yet another discussion about how Russia could evade sanctions. 

And just to be clear, plotting with Putin to evade sanctions would be impeachable.  The sanctions were a law passed by Congress.  While agitating for the repeal of a law passed by Congress, or challenging it in court as unconstitutional are perfectly legitimate partisan politics, secretly plotting to evade such a law is as clear and impeachable offense as one could ask for.*  Impeachment in such a case would not look partisan.  The sanctions were passed with the overwhelming support of both parties.  And I thought even Republicans might be persuaded to support impeachment, partly because it was their law as much as the Democrats', and partly because, while Republicans might be willing to tolerate Trump shooting someone in the middle of Fifth Avenue, I did not expect them to tolerate an insufficiently aggressive foreign policy.

But all that is moot.  The phone call turned out to be with the President of Ukraine, seeking evidence of dirty dealing by Joe Biden.  And to Democrats this was a bridge too far.  Up till then, Democrats had held out the hope of getting rid of Trump in the next election.  But that presupposed that the next election would be free and fair.  If Trump was plotting with a foreign government to subvert the next election, suddenly events took an altogether different shape.

But it can't possibly look that way to Republicans.  To Republicans, impeaching Donald Trump for looking for foreign dirty on his Democratic rival -- even fake foreign dirt -- is bound to look partisan.  And impeaching him for efforts to win the next election -- even dishonest efforts -- is not going to hold much appeal.

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*And, yes, I do think this means that GWB's policies of indefinite detention, torture, and warrantless surveillance were impeachable.

In Defense of the Foregoing

That being said, I can see some defenses of our general ideas about what is and is not impeachable.

First of all, every country in the world does sordid and bloody things in foreign policy.  That are so many sordid and bloody things happening in the world that doing sordid and bloody things is unavoidable.  Civil wars -- even most international wars -- are not fought between good guys and bad guys.  They are fought between bad guys and other bad guys.  The most clear-cut ones are fought between bad guys and worse guys.   No matter what side you take, you will have unsavory allies.  And staying out means passively allowing the worst to happen.

It is also true that every country shows more concerns for its own citizens than for foreign nationals.  And that the U.S. cannot possibly admit everyone who wants to come here.  It is also true that most people assume that in a democratic country, and leader who harms fellow-citizens will be punished by losing the next election.

There is also the matter of upholding the rule of law.  The law is not always clear.  The executive has some, but not unlimited, discretion in interpretation and enforcement.  Donald Trump's Muslim ban was vile.  But it was not expressly illegal until the courts held that it was, and even then it was salvageable with some modification.  A lot of his other actions to limit immigration are dubious at best and have been challenged in court.  If a court holds any of these actions illegal and Trump persists, then his actions will be impeachable.  The same goes for challenges to Obamacare. It is clearly legal to attempt to pass legislation repealing Obamacare.  The penalty will be paid at the ballot box.  (That is why the attempt ultimately failed).  It is also legal to challenge legislation in court, even if the challenge is so weak as to be frivolous. 

Challenging or stretching the law is one thing.  Openly breaking it is another.  Trump almost certainly committed an impeachable offense in telling border security officials to break the law (seizing property to build the wall, automatically denying all asylum requests without hearing) and promising a pardon if they are prosecuted.  But it may be difficult to persuade the officials in question to testify against Trump, and any impeachment action will look like an attempt to criminalize policy differences. 

And finally, how the elite treat each other has a tremendous impact on the general population.

To take an extreme example, a country in which deposed rulers are killed will give rules an incentive to hold onto power at all costs.  It will lead the ruler to spend immense amounts on internal security at the expense of everything else.  It will lead to civil war any time the leader sees his power as threatened.

A country that routinely exiles deposed rulers will create a strong incentive for leaders to loot the treasure and spend a lot of money on foreign real estate to prepare for a future exile.

To move into more realistic territory, a country in which elections are rigged to ensure that the same party always wins is bound to become corrupt and sclerotic, in the manner of Mexico in the heyday of the PRI.  Parties that find themselves systematically shut out of power lose their respect for the democratic process become radicalized in dangerous ways.

A country that is able to subvert freedom of the press is one that destroys an important method for holding leaders accountable and allows corruption to flourish.

A country that makes economic success depend on political favor becomes systematically corrupt -- crony capitalism.  A leader who treats his office as an opportunity to make money is one who has no regard for the public good.

All of these lead to serious problems.  But, it would appear, these problems do not arise overnight.  I feared the results of a Trump presidency, but there is simply no denying that nothing disastrous has happened, at least not to U.S. citizens.  But the integrity of our governing institutions is being undermined, and sooner or later, things will start going down hill for the rest of us.

A Disturbing Thought on Impeachment

I whole-heartedly agree with people who say that any impeachment of Donald Trump must be on narrow grounds.  We should stick to clearly illegal or unconstitutional behavior and not impeach over mere policy differences.

And yet, the thought of what is an impeachable offense and what is a mere policy difference is disturbing.  Consider:


Mere policy differences, not impeachable:

  • Precipitously withdrawing our troops in Syria and leaving the Kurds to be slaughtered.
  • Supporting Saudi Arabia's murderous war on Yemen.
  • The Muslim travel ban.
  • Pressing for a no-deal Brexit with all resultant damage to the British economy.
  • Separating parents and children at the border, and detaining asylum seekers until hearing.
  • Requiring asylum seekers to remain in Mexico while their applications are processed.
  • Attempts to role back protections for Dreamers.
  • Gross incompetence in responding to Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico.
  • Supporting a repeal of Obamacare that could have stripped tens of millions of people of their health insurance.
  • Arguing for the courts to declare Obamacare unconstitutional, strip millions of their health insurance, and take protections from people with pre-existing conditions.
  • Seeking to precipitate a fiscal crisis that will force massive cuts to Medicaid, Medicare and Social Security.
  • Ending environmental regulations and raising the likelihood that the planet will cook.
  • Nor would it have been impeachable if Trump had blundered into a war with North Korea and ended up with West Coast cities being nuked.

Things that might be impeachable:

  • Diverting funds from military projects to build the border wall.
  • Telling immigration officials to disregard laws and he would pardon them.
  • Abuse of anti-trust laws to punish media companies that criticize him.  
  • Attempts to fire Robert Mueller and other officials investigating Trump's ties to Russia.
Impeachable offenses:
  • Use of federal office the profit Trump Enterprises.
  • Possible foreign (and domestic) policy decisions based on personal financial interests.
  • Basing foreign policy on other countries' willingness to assist him against political rivals.
  • Stonewalling all attempts at Congressional investigation.
Is it overly cynical to say that what our ruling elites do to ordinary citizens, and especially to foreigners, is a mere matter of policy, while what our ruling elites do to each other is impeachable?

Sunday, September 22, 2019

On Impeachment

I don't think this latest uproar will change anything.  Certainly it does not change my views on impeachment.

My views on impeachment are this.  An impeachable offense is whatever public opinion says it is.  Public opinion has to mean not just a majority, but a super-majority, including a sizable portion of the President's party.   In today's hyper-polarized atmosphere, Republican voters would not support impeachment if Trump shot someone in the middle of Fifth Avenue.  Republicans in Congress are not willing to defy their constituents on this matter.

Furthermore Nancy Pelosi's reluctance to impeach is not just based on the knowledge that the Senate wouldn't vote to convict even if Trump shot someone in the middle of Fifth Avenue.  It is based on the knowledge that so far she doesn't even have enough Democratic votes to sustain an impeachment.  I am honestly at a loss as to what purpose it would serve to bring articles of impeachment only to see them fail.

My greatest concern about impeachment is not just that Republicans will see it as purely partisan, but that they will retaliate by impeaching the next Democrat to be elected President.  Democrats will see little choice but to retaliate in kind, and impeachment will become a routine matter of partisan politics.  I would rather see impeachment become impossible than see it degraded to a routine matter.

Nonetheless, I have changed my mind about an impeachment inquiry.  I have always favored aggressive investigation of Trump's corruption, business dealings, etc.  His response has been to stonewall the proceedings, refuse to produce documents, claim executive privilege for all witnesses, etc, even in the face of clear law requiring him to cooperate.  His argument, supported by William Barr, is essentially that Congress has  no authority to hold the President accountable, except through impeachment.

This being the case, I don't see Congress has much choice but to declare an impeachment inquiry.  No floor vote is required to do so.  A member simply introduces an impeachment resolution.  Members introduce impeachment resolutions all the time.  Most go nowhere.  The Speaker then assigns the resolution to a committee to investigate.  If the committee approves the resolution, it goes to the floor for a vote on whether to impeach.

I therefore recommend that members of the House introduce impeachment resolutions, not just on Trump's dealings with Ukraine, but on the numerous other matters that require investigation.  Nancy Pelosi should then refer all these matters to the appropriate committee to investigate and see if there is an impeachable offense.  Of course, Republicans will cry foul.  They will complain that there is no evidence of impeachable conduct and that Democrats are abusing the process to conduct routine investigations.  The Democratic response is obvious.  We don't know if there is anything impeachable going on because you-know-who is stonewalling us.  There may or may not be anything impeachable, but until we pry his hot little hands loose, we really don't know.  Then investigate, see if you find anything scandalous enough to turn public opinion in favor of impeachment.  (I will bet no, see above).  If not, at least some of what you find may be useful in the upcoming election.  And no, there is no point crying foul about that.  Republicans in Congress spent four years investigating Benghazi in hopes of finding something to hurt Hillary Clinton in her upcoming run for President.

Of course, this carries the risk of a different kind of retaliation.  It means that Republicans will call every investigation of a Democratic President an impeachment inquiry.  It will be unnecessary because I really do not expect a Democratic President to stonewall in the way that Trump is doing, but Republicans will feel the need as a matter of politics and Democrats will doubtless respond in kind.  (No guarantee against future Republican Presidents stonewalling in Trumpian manner).

But you know what?  I can live with that.  I don't think it will hurt us too much to routinely call ordinary investigations impeachment inquiries, so long as actual impeachment resolutions only occur for serious misconduct.

Final Thoughts on Zimblatt

Zimblatt's book also sheds some light on a phenomenon we have been observing recently in the U.S. -- the tendency of a defeated party to respond, not by moderating, but by doubling down.  We saw that with Republicans in the wake of their defeat by Barrack Obama (and, before that Bill Clinton), and now by Democrats in the wake of their defeat by Donald Trump. 

We see the same thing happen to British Conservatives in the wake of their 1906 defeat and to the German DNVP in the wake of their 1928 defeat.  Perhaps one can pose a theory that it is a sign of political tranquility for parties to respond to defeat by moderating to win back lost voters, and a sign of political crisis for parties to respond to defeat by radicalizing.  But Zimblatt does not research this topic and neither have I.

An alternate theory is that it is normal and expected for a political party to respond to defeat by doubling down.  After all, defeat means the loss of moderate voters, so only the more ideological voters remain.  This theory would also hold that a party with a very narrow majority will be more ideological and less inclined to compromise than one with a broader majority.  Zimblatt offers a British example.  The Liberals lost their majority after the 1910 election and were able to hold onto power only by forming an alliance with the Irish Party.  In order to do so, the Liberals had to make excessive concessions to the Irish, promising home rule to all of Ireland, very much against the wishes of the Protestants in the North.  With a larger majority, the Liberals might have made the less controversial offer of home rule that excluded the North.

We see the same phenomenon with the Republican Party in the U.S.  A classic example would be the first election of GW Bush.  News media suggested that, since he had such a narrow victory (having lost the popular vote and holding a razor-thin margin in Congress), he should govern as a moderate.  But what they failed to take into account was that with such a narrow margin, the Republicans could not afford even a small number of defections and therefore were in no position to moderate or compromise.  Likewise, the narrower the Republican majority today, the more it has been dependent on the dogmatic Freedom Caucus, and the more ideologues have a veto.*

Finally, there is a deeply disturbing aspect of Zimblatt's theory of the value of conservative parties.  He argues that the key to a successful democratic transition is the creation of a strong conservative party, representing the interests of the pre-democratic ruling elite, that can find appeals cutting across class lines to the broader public and be competitive in elections.  These appeals tend to be appeals to social conservatism, to traditional values, and to national greatness.

But there can be darker things at work, too.  The authors focus on electoral democracy (majority rule), rather than the distinction between electoral democracy and liberal democracy, i.e., majority rule with protection for the rights of the minority.  And the minority here means not just the losers of the last election, but permanent minorities of excluded identity groups.

Simply put, one form of cross-class appeal the old conservative party can find is in scapegoating some minority identity group.**  As I understand it, that is what the landed aristocracy ultimately did in the post-Reconstruction U.S. South.  And there are traces of that in the examples Ziblatt gives in Britain and Germany. 

In Britain, one of the cross-class appeals the Conservatives found was in matters of religion.  Most of the Church of England's old privileges were gone by then, but Conservatives did find an identity appeal to Church of England members while the Liberals appealed to dissenters.  I don't think appeals to a common identity are necessarily dangerous -- so long as they don't include denying rights to outsiders.  And when Conservatives emphasized denying home rule to Ireland -- well, one can see a definite danger there.  The danger was rather more obvious in Germany.  All attempts by the German Conservatives (pre-WWI) or DNVK (post WWI) to expand their appeal seemed to mean cutting a deal with anti-Semites and adopting some measure of anti-Semitism that party leaders disliked but could not get rid of. 

So this may be the answer to the defect in Zimblatt's theory that I pointed out before.  A successful conservative party, representing the interest of the pre-democratic ruling elite has to find some sort of cross-class appeal to a broader public.  This cross-class appeal may lie in a shared identity with a large section of the public.  But ties of shared identity can easily descend into bigotry.  Perhaps what Zimblatt is arguing is that the delicate task of a democratic conservative party is to hold its members together in a sense of common identity while holding the outright bigots in check. 

Thus the British Conservative were able to appeal to a sense of solidarity with Irish Protestants and their legitimate fear of their fate in a Catholic Ireland, but without letting those fears run riot and define the party.  A weaker party might have allowed the Irish Protestant fears to take over the party and turn it into an anti-Irish, anti-Catholic band of bigots.  And he may be arguing that a strong German Conservative Party might have made itself over into a rural party, championing the traditional culture and religion of the German countryside, low land taxes, pro-agriculture trade policy and agricultural improvements without yielding too much to anti-Semites.  Like all counter-factuals, we will never know.

But I am confident of this.  People who believe that the success of democracy depends on the absence of identity groups are living in a fantasy world.  Identity groups will always be with us.  Even South Korea, one of the most ethnically uniform countries in the world, has important splits between Christians, Buddhists, and the non-religious.*** 

Zimblatt has written another book entitled How Democracies Die that addresses contemporary failures of democracy, and the issue of identity in US politics.  I have begun but not finished it.  I intend to review it here at a later date.





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*This has served to block compromise on ordinary legislation.  On the other had, for must-pass items such as passing some sort of budget or raising the debt ceiling, it has forced non-Freedom Caucus Republicans to make an alliance with Democrats and therefore served to moderate.
**The sources I link offer another alternative as well.  The ruling elite can also form an alliance with minority identity groups and offer them protection from the majority, thereby forming a liberal autocracy.  That has frequently been done.
***Japan may be a rare example of a country without significant identity splits.