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The appeal to principle; and, impeachment, a reassessment

The call for impeachment is couched in lofty appeal to principle. No one is above the law. The president must be held accountable. Who could argue with this? Dissent would be unprincipled.

Thus Democrats from swing districts with reservations about boarding the impeachment train are acting like Republicans because they care only about their own reelection. Nancy Pelosi is betraying her constitutional responsibility by taking political considerations and calculations into account. Consequences be damned.

The problem is that consequences matter. That too is a principle. The appeal to principle smacks of sophistry when it is used to immunize impeachment proponents against the obligation to take consequences into account or to explain how impeachment is more than a symbolic, even quixotic, gesture in the absence of a Senate vote for conviction and removal from office. This symbolic accountability comes with no substantive cost to the president and could perversely benefit his reelection campaign and Republican attempts to take back the House.

A choice between good and evil is a luxury. Often our choices are between evils in circumstances where the consequences of those choices are uncertain. We can only study, ponder, weigh anticipated risks and benefits, and make our best judgment, knowing that we could be wrong.

The partial abandonment of the principle of accountability, partial because House committees would continue to investigate presidential wrongdoing and the press, the blogosphere, the twitosphere, and Moe, Joe, and Rosa at the corner bar would continue to rage about it, is a lesser evil than the undesirable consequence of Trump's reelection and swing of the House back to Republican control. My own rigorously unscientific risk-benefit analysis has not changed. Impeachment carries considerable downside risks and precious little prospect of reward. The likelihood of that risk outweighs the possible reward. And yet...

The Democratic Party, pushed by purists of the progressive persuasion who brook no dissent, has painted itself into a corner. The albatross of impeachment is so entangled around its collective neck that it may at this point matter little in the court of public opinion whether the House proceeds to a vote. The harm has already been done in swing districts. We are now so far down this treacherous road that impeachment may be the least bad option left us.

An impeachment vote might put the internecine wrangling behind us to some degree. The focus could move back to next year's elections. The House could continue to pass a Democratic agenda for the campaign even if Mitch McConnell kills it in the Senate. This assumes of course that House Democrats have the votes to impeach. A failed vote would be its own special disaster. It is not difficult to imagine the circular firing squad that will be assembled if that happens.

It has gotten harder to put my heart into the argument that impeachment is folly as the president has become more unhinged and ever more disdainful of traditional norms and restraints on his conduct, including those laid out in the Constitution. Each fresh outrage introduces a new level of presidential imperiousness. Now comes the whistleblower affair and the whole Ukraine/Biden cluster mess.

The handling of the whistleblower complaint is yet another executive-branch defiance of congressional oversight. Together with the gravity of the accompanying allegations, and what we do in fact know about them, it warps us out to a new dimension of foulness and corruption that could be a game changer. Politico reported today that moderate Democrats are rethinking their cautious stance on impeachment in what one freshperson Democrat, declining to speak publicly, described as "a seismic change in mood" (Caygle, et al.)

Let's get the Biden stuff out of the way. Hunter Biden should never have accepted a spot on the board of the Ukrainian energy company Burisma. That was a bonehead move that created a serious conflict of interest for Joe Biden given his role in Obama administration negotiations with Ukraine. Both Bidens, père et fils, should have known better. For this Biden the elder is rightly to be taken to task. And that is the sum of it.

The conflict of interest is the sole element of truth in the heaping pot of balderdash served up by Trump, his factotum Giuliani, enthusiastic jock-duster Lindsey Graham (credit to Charlie Sykes for the epithet), and the usual parade of lickspittles and lackeys. Biden was representing the position of the Obama administration when he pressured Ukraine to fire the Ukrainian prosecutor in question because he was not investigating corruption at Burisma and elsewhere. There was widespread agreement among US governmental agencies, nongovernmental experts, international institutions, and anticorruption activists in Ukraine that the prosecutor had to go because he was failing to prosecute major cases and blocking attempts at reform.

We know that Trump tried to pressure a foreign government to damage a political opponent. It is alleged that he used military aid as leverage. This is about as bad as it gets. Never-Trump conservative Tom Nichols nutshelled it in a column in The Atlantic:

"There is no spin, no deflection, no alternative theory of the case that can get around the central fact that President Trump reportedly attempted to use his office for his own gain, and that he put the foreign policy and the national security of the United States at risk while doing so. He ignored his duty as the commander in chief by intentionally trying to place an American citizen in jeopardy with a foreign government. He abandoned his obligations to the Constitution by elevating his own interests over the national interest. By comparison, Watergate was a complicated judgment call.


"I am speaking only for myself as an American citizen. I believe in our Constitution, and therefore I must accept that Donald Trump is the president and the commander in chief until the Congress or the people of the United States say otherwise. But if this kind of dangerous, unhinged hijacking of the powers of the presidency is not enough for either the citizens or their elected leaders to demand Trump’s removal, then we no longer have an accountable executive branch, and we might as well just admit that we have chosen to elect a monarch and be done with the illusion of constitutional order in the United States."

These are the stakes. By comparison, Watergate was a complicated judgment call.

Keep the faith.


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