Donald Trump has been flooding the zone with false claims of “No Collusion” and “Total Exoneration” ever since the Mueller report’s conclusion was announced — and completely misrepresented by Trump's “Coverup General” William Barr, to borrow the label William Safire affixed to him in 1992. Democrats, typically, have been dithering ever since, trying to be reasonable, and thus falling into a bottomless pit of endless delay — delay, that for 40 years now, has always been Donald Trump’s best friend.
This article first appeared in Salon.
Over the weekend, congressional scholar Norm Ornstein tweeted that Democrats should ditch all that and flood the zone in their own way, with dramatically presented facts:
Memo to House Democrats: start now with a truly aggressive and multifaceted presentation of the findings in the Mueller Report ... going with giant placards with the excerpts that show the evidence of obstruction and collusion (collusion is not conspiracy!) ... You are trying to show impeachable offenses. Hold aggressive hearings with @benjaminwittes and some of the 900 prosecutors who signed the letter — let them lay out the evidence in stark terms. Then move to formal impeachment inquiry. Lay the right groundwork NOW.
The combination of former White House counsel Don McGahn’s refusal to appear before a House Judiciary Committee hearing and the tweetstorm by Rep. Justin Amash, the first Republican member of Congress to argue for Trump’s impeachment, has changed things. There has been a significant jump in the number of House Democrats openly calling for impeachment, with increased pressure inside Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s leadership team. But the terms of debate on the Democratic side remain profoundly muddled, in stark contrast to the clarity Ornstein is calling for.
And the Mueller report is hardly the whole story of why Trump warrants impeachment. It’s only the tip of a much larger iceberg, as Garrett Epps argued in his Atlantic essay, "What Pleases Trump Has the Force of Law":
No president I know of has asserted a blanket power to reject any request that doesn’t suit him — until Donald Trump. No president I know of has rejected requests on the grounds that the committee requesting is controlled by Democrats — until Donald Trump. The ongoing battle between this administration and the House committees is not, at heart, a legal dispute at all; it is an assertion by a president that the law and the Constitution are simply irrelevant when they conflict with his will.
As Epps makes clear, what’s necessary is a far-reaching congressional response, in which every effort by Trump to subvert the rule of law is cast as a potentially impeachable offense, and contrasted with how other presidents have responded.
It may be prudent, in the end, only to charge a small subset of the offenses, the better to sharpen the spotlight when an impeachment trial moves to the Senate. But the American people deserve a full and vigorous investigation by the House, so that the full extent of this president's lawlessness can be driven home, and the norms he’s so gleefully violating can be forcefully reaffirmed and restored. Impeachment may still only have minority support, but it’s growing and will likely only grow further. As Sidney Blumenthal argues at Just Security, Nixon’s impeachment process is a far better guide than Clinton’s. Our hyper-polarized condition may blunt how far this process can go, but it should not deter us from doing what the preservation of democracy requires.
Pelosi appears to be fixated on the misleading example of Bill Clinton’s impeachment, when a popular president faced obviously overblown, hypocritical charges, along with concerns for newly-elected members from swing districts, and a false choice between impeachment and legislative action. All of these are based on questionable assessments. Democrats can legislate all they want, for example, but Mitch McConnell, Donald Trump and the media will simply continue to ignore them.
The unavoidable fight
“There are moments in history when politicians must set aside short-term electoral goals and act to defend democracy,” Levitsky told Salon. “This is what so many anti-Trump Republicans — politicians who knew perfectly well that Trump was grossly unfit for office — failed to do in and after 2016.
“A similar failure to place democracy above short-term ambition led Italian liberals to align with Mussolini in the early 1920s and German conservatives to work with Hitler starting in 1929. I’m not comparing the U.S. to interwar Europe, but this is not a moment of ‘normal politics’ in which politicians have the luxury of taking our institutions for granted and allowing electoral and other narrow or short-term interests to carry the day.”
Levitsky is not arguing to throw all caution to the wind. Quite the opposite. There are two types of caution he distinguishes between, the first as valuable as the second may prove dangerous.
“Two things are often being conflated these days: ‘procedural conservatism’ and electoral pragmatism," he continued. "Procedural conservatism strikes me as appropriate. House investigations and other tools of legislative oversight should be used with caution and restraint.
“But there is nothing norm-breaking about the appropriate use of oversight institutions, including impeachment,” he went on to say. “If the situation merits it (and my read of the Mueller report, together with Trump’s refusal to cooperate with Congress since its release, is that this situation clearly merits it), Congress should — indeed must — exercise oversight.”
This returns us to the question of underlying norms, which figure prominently in “How Democracies Die”: “Constitutions must be defended — by political parties and organized citizens, but also by democratic norms. Without robust norms, constitutional checks and balances do not serve as the bulwarks of democracy we imagine them to be,” Levitsky and Ziblatt write in their introduction. Two basic norms are central to their account, underlying our system of checks and balances: “mutual toleration, or the understanding that competing parties accept one another as legitimate rivals, and forbearance, or the idea that politicians should exercise restraint in deploying their institutional prerogatives.” But forbearance requires judgment.
“The norm is not that impeachment should never be used under any circumstance. The norm is that it should be used with restraint, and only under extraordinary circumstances,” Levitsky said. “This is almost certainly such a circumstance. Sometimes the glass really does need to be broken. So I think the actions laid out in Ornstein’s memo are not only consistent with existing norms but essential to preserving our existing norms.”
Up to now, “playing by the rules" has allowed for protracted delay and diffusion of attention, interest and understanding. Trump is a lifelong practitioner of twisting rules to his advantage. But Ornstein points out that the rules allow a dramatically different, politically potent and proactive approach that enables Democrats to proceed on their terms, flooding the zone with substantive findings to set their own agenda, and overwhelm Trump's flood of crap.
So much wrongdoing has already come to light that Congress need not delay action waiting to get everything it might want, such as testimony from Barr and Mueller, which would normally kick off the hearing process. Congress can use hearings to dramatically inform the public of what’s already known — and in the process, it can ratchet up the pressure to get what’s still being held back.
The dysfunctional media challenge
A major part of the challenge is the dysfunction of the press. A New York Times story this week was typical: “There’s No Boom in Youngstown, but Blue-Collar Workers Are Sticking With Trump.” It featured an interview with David Betras, who recently stepped down as Democratic chairman of Mahoning County, Ohio:
“The Democratic Party has lost its voice to speak to people that shower after work and not before work,” he said. “All we’re saying is he won’t turn over his tax returns. He’s saying, ‘I’m fighting China to get you better jobs.’”
He added: “They don’t care about his taxes — they just don’t.’’
It’s the sort of story that’s catnip for the Beltway media, even though it might not be well-founded. As Greg Sargent pointed out the next day, a Quinnipiac University poll shows “shockingly good numbers on the economy” together with terrible numbers for Trump’s handling of trade. Sargent asked Quinnipiac for results just in the industrial Midwest — Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin, Ohio and Iowa — and the results were disastrous for Trump:
- In these five states, only 41 percent of voters approve of Trump’s handling of trade, versus 56 percent who disapprove.
- In these five states, only 39 percent approve of the way Trump is handling the nation’s policies towards China, versus 53 percent who disapprove.
- In these five states, only 39 percent say Trump’s trade policies are good for the U.S. economy, versus 47 percent who say they’re bad.
So there may be some truth in the Times’ Youngstown story, but there’s a powerful counterstory in which Trump’s the one who’s most out of touch.
Don’t expect to hear that on MSNBC, though. Instead, Chris Jansing threw Betras’ quote in the face of Rep. Jamie Raskin, D-Md., when he appeared to talk about Trump and impeachment.
“Does this make Democrats look like they're not on the same page as a lot of the people that Democrats say they want to fight for, they want to defend, they think are being hurt under this administration?” Jansing asked.
"We have been fighting to lower prescription drug prices, and we just passed very important legislation on that last week,” Raskin replied, “We've fought to pass ...”
“That's not going to get through the Senate,” Jansing interrupted.
“Well, there's the problem,” Raskin responded. “The same kind of obstruction we're getting from the White House in terms of the truth we’re getting from the Senate in terms of everything we want to do, whether it's infrastructure, whether it's gun violence and gun safety legislation, which we passed, whether it's environmental protection, we're getting a complete shutdown from this party of obstruction. That's the problem that we're dealing with.”
Raskin was 100% right with his messaging — the GOP is the party of obstruction as well as coverups — but he was fighting an uphill battle all the way, even on the supposed “Fox News of the left.” That’s probably the most formidable problem that Democrats face: a persistently hostile press that’s utterly oblivious to what it’s doing, having completely normalized Republican extremism. Democrats absolutely need a strategy to overcome that — which is one more reason that Orntein’s memo makes sense: Democrats control the House. It’s their stage for the show of their own choosing, which then forces everyone else to react.
Should it be grounded in facts? Absolutely! Grounded in expertise? Absolutely! Informative and dramatic? Absolutely once again! Should it be scripted in fear of how Trump, Trump voters or some other bogeyman might react? Absolutely not!
Restoring American democracy
Toward the end of "How Democracies Die," the authors turn to a discussion of how the two parties might work to restore health to American democracy. It’s a much bigger, more long-term problem than simply dealing with Donald Trump, since norms have been eroding for a long time.
“The Republican Party has been the main driver of the chasm between the parties,” they write. “Since 2008, the GOP has at times behaved like an antisystem party in its obstructionism, partisan hostility, and extremist policy positions. Its twenty-five-year march to the right was made possible by the hollowing out of its organizational core,” a process that desperately needs to be reversed.
“Only if the party leadership can free itself from the clutches of outside donors and right-wing media can it go about transforming itself,” they write — a difficult task, but not an impossible one. There are "historical precedents for such transformations — and under even more challenging circumstances,” the authors conclude, citing the post-World War II formation of Germany’s Christian Democratic Union as an example.
Levitsky and Ziblatt continue: “Although the Democratic Party has not been the principal driver of America’s deepening polarization, it could nevertheless play a role in reducing it.” One way of doing that would be “recapturing the so-called white working class. … To do this, many opinion-makers argued, the Democrats needed to back away from their embrace of immigrants and so-called identity politics. ... We think this is a terrible idea. Seeking to diminish minority groups’ influence in the party — and we cannot emphasize this strongly enough — is the wrong way to reduce polarization. It would repeat some of our country’s most shameful mistakes.”
The authors go on to point out another alternative — reducing polarization by reducing inequality — not through means-tested programs, which reinforce the stereotype that only the undeserving poor benefit, but through universalist ones like Social Security and Medicare. Universal health insurance would be a further example, as would “a much more aggressive raising of the minimum wage, or a universal basic income” and “'family policy,’ or programs that provide paid leave for parents, subsidized day care for children with working parents, and prekindergarten education for nearly everyone.”
In short, the kinds of policies that have become increasingly popular in the wake of the 2016 elections, and which 2020 presidential candidates are talking about. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren may be leading the way, but the whole field — with the possible exception of Joe Biden — understands such that the party’s future lies that way.
Congressional Democrats should trust that as well. They can walk and chew gum at the same time, advancing legislation and impeachment simultaneously. They can flooding the zone with legislation that can be reintroduced when a Democrat retakes the White House in 2021. They can follow Ornstein’s advice by offering a vivid presentation of the damning facts we already know, and a clear commitment to preserving American democracy. If the Senate refuses to act on any of this, as is entirely likely, so much the worse for its leaders in the next election.