After the first day of hearings in the House Judiciary Committee on the question of whether or not to impeach Donald Trump, New York Times columnist David Leonhardt used his December 5th Newsletter to opine that the lessons of basic psychology would suggest the committee’s Democratic majority had failed in their primary mission — to convince those not already convinced that Trump’s perfidy was, indeed, impeachable — because they had focused on the message rather than on who was delivering it: that, by enlisting only people clearly and easily identifiable as good liberals (and, therefore, as “anti-Trump”) to make the plausible legal case for impeachment, they had rendered that case unconvincing.
In his view — and in mine, as well — the messenger (alas) matters as much as the message. If you want to convince Republicans (and skeptical Independents) that the case for impeachment is sound, you need messengers making that case who may be reasonably perceived to begin from a position of neutrality rather than from a position of partisanship — that is, you need messengers who you could believe came reluctantly to their conclusions after assessing the facts, rather than ones who give every appearance of enthusiastically assessing the facts in the flattering light of their preordained conclusions.
I wrote this as an e-mail to Mr. Leonhardt to let him know that I didn’t think he’d made his brush broad enough — that the sense of partisanship he identifies long pre-dates this particular hearing and that overcoming the sense of partisanship will need to go far beyond the judicious choice of a few witnesses in the current moment.
I didn’t receive any reply to my missive and, in his next Newsletter, he had moved on to other topics without mentioning any further enlightenment on yesterday’s subject…
5 December 2019
Ref: “Psych 101, Impeachment Edition” (NYT, 5 Dec 2019)
Your argument does, indeed, go to the heart of the problem with convincing Republicans that Trump deserves impeachment. But it goes well beyond the recent question of who to call as witnesses in the current proceedings.
The leaders of the Democratic Party have spent the last three years creating an appearance of partisanship and an atmosphere of skepticism: by first raising the specter of impeachment (or an invocation of the 25th amendment) to remove Trump from the Presidency immediately after his election, even before he took office and, therefore by definition, literally before it was possible — never mind reasonable or necessary — to impeach him; by encouraging various candidates in the mid-term Congressional elections to campaign on that promise (“If elected, I will vote to impeach Trump”), thus making impeachment appear to be a convenient electoral strategy rather than a serious and ethical act of accountability; and by allowing their rhetoric about his alleged crimes to get so far out ahead of any actual investigations that the rhetoric was very rarely tied in any concrete way to demonstrable facts and seemed to be driving the investigations rather than resulting from them. The message they have communicated is simple: they always planned to impeach him; they were simply looking for a good excuse.
To be clear: Trump is both an appalling human being and an awful President. He deserves to be defeated at the polls in the next election, now less than a year away. From the latest evidence, he has also abused both the powers and the oath of his office and deserves, in this moment, to be impeached. And the Congressional Republicans have forsworn any claims either to integrity or to principle by making it clear they intend to judge him solely as partisans and enablers, not as defenders of the Constitutional order and of the national interest.
But everything that preceded this moment has primed those who are not self-declared members of the “resistance” to presume that attempts to impeach Trump are not, and have never been, about “accountability” but, rather, are, and have always been, about power — about overturning the result of an election that the Democrats really, really didn’t like. And there is a legitimate question about which is worse: Trump’s tawdry abuse of the authority of the Presidency, by using the levers of foreign policy to help in his next election; or the Democrats’ tawdry abuse of the authority the Congress, by politicizing and cheapening the power of oversight, investigation, and impeachment in order to undo the results of the previous election. If either of those becomes a common part of our political culture then we are, indeed, in trouble. No matter which way this goes, some set of bad guys gets rewarded for their bad behavior and some damaging precedent gets established for the future conduct of politics and governance.
The question is, what could Democratic leaders do now to overcome that sorry history and to convince the justifiably skeptical that, this time, they are actually and truly acting on honest principle instead of from base partisanship?
Imagine another context: A prosecutor that clearly and publicly loathed an opposing lawyer who had beat him at trial and who would, undoubtedly, oppose him again in the future; that accused his opponent, beginning while the original trial was still going on, of being sleazy and unethical and of committing vaguely-defined crimes, based on suggestive and plausible anecdotes but without providing any real, concrete proof; that spent several years after that trial was over investigating every aspect of his opponent’s life, associates, legal practice, and clientele while continuously (and with increasing plausibility) repeating his accusations to anyone who would listen, but without ever formally charging him with a crime or disbarrable offense that would need to be proved beyond doubt by hard evidence; and that then, late during the discovery phase of a new case in which he was, again, to face his opponent at trial, was led suddenly and fortuitously (but inadvertently, through an anonymous tip) to the proof he was after to make an actual charge of malfeasance stick.
After that demonstrable history of seeming vendetta and persecution, and in the charged context of a new pending contest between the prosecutor and his adversary, how high would the bar on proof — and on witness credibility — need to be in order to overcome a reasonable skepticism about the motivation behind and justice of any resulting prosecution?
And, if you are honest about it, which people in our polity — which side of our political divide — do you think would be the most skeptical about the justice of that prosecution, would be the most likely to presume that the taint of the process was enough to taint — fatally — the result?
© Copyright 2019, Augustus P. Lowell