What’s Behind the Democrats’ Impeachment Gambit?

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi announces the House of Representatives will launch a formal inquiry into the impeachment of President Donald Trump, September 24, 2019. (Kevin Lamarque/Reuters)
They think anytime a Republican is elected president, there must have been something 'illegitimate' going on.

I  suppose it is no secret that I never thought Donald Trump should have been elected president of these United States in the first place. He’s dim, dishonest, and doddering, both intellectually and morally unfit for the office.

But: He was elected.

And, contrary to the endless litany of Democratic complaints, he was legitimately elected. You may not like the way we elect presidents through the Electoral College — I do; if anything, I think the Founders erred on the side of making the presidency excessively democratic in character, with the disastrous results we see before us today — but the Electoral College was not invented in 2016, and it was not created to frustrate the ambitions of Hillary Rodham Clinton. Some Russians posted some bulls**t on Facebook. The votes were what they were.

There are a few different ways to react to that. The thing that a normal political party in a normal country with a functioning political culture would do would be to crawl under the porch for a couple of days to recuperate, admit that your candidate was terrible and ran a terrible race with terrible advisers, and start looking around for somebody to do better next time. You might even — if you were smart and in possession of a reasonable degree of intellectual honesty — ask yourselves what it was about that other guy that some voters liked so much.

That’s one thing you could do. Or you could come over and sit on my front porch and hear more than you probably really wanted to hear about the inevitable decadence of mass democracy, which may shine for a moment but “soon wastes, exhausts, and murders itself.” And we would laugh a little at all the diehards on my street with their “Beto for Senate” signs up in their yards, still, after all this time.

That’s another thing you could do. Or you could insist that the 2016 election was illegitimate, not because of any real procedural questions but because of its outcome. And that, more or less, is what Democrats did. It is worth keeping in mind that the effort to impeach Donald Trump began before he was even sworn in, with Senator Elizabeth Warren et al. beginning to lay the legal groundwork in December of 2016.

Since that time, there have been demands to impeach Trump over this or that real or imagined offense every few weeks. This is Red Queen politics: sentence first, trial later. The Democrats have a solution in mind — impeachment — and have been searching since Election Day 2016 for a problem to which to apply it.

This week’s renewed enthusiasm for impeachment would be a great deal more persuasive if it were not No. 6,782 in a series. Democrats want to impeach Trump for leaning on the Ukrainians about the Biden’s family’s shady dealings — and they are shady — with that corrupt regime and its sycophants. Before that, they wanted to impeach Trump because favor-seekers book rooms in hotels with his name on them. Before that, they wanted to impeach him because of his Twitter habits. Etc.

The cynic in me guesses that the Ukrainian gambit serves a dual purpose: First: It provides a pretext for a pre-election impeachment inquiry against the incumbent president — which, given the current composition of the Senate, is unlikely to end in action before the election, or after that, either, unless there is a Democratic majority seated in the Senate. Second: The likely collateral damage to Joe Biden probably is not entirely unwelcome in some Democratic circles — he already is sliding vis-à-vis Senator Warren, and to many Democrats he already has the look of a likely loser should he be the nominee. If somebody has to be put on an ice floe, it’s going to be Joe Biden.

There are many problems with this approach, one of which is this: Americans in possession of even a modest political memory must recall that not only did Democrats insist that the 2016 election was illegitimate, they also insisted that the last election that brought a Republican to the White House was illegitimate. There was talk of impeaching George W. Bush, too — talk that was endorsed by, among others, Donald Trump, who was a donor to Mrs. Clinton’s campaigns before he became her tormentor. For the Democrats, there is only one kind of legitimate presidential election: one where they win.

Democrats did not decide to try to impeach Trump in September 2019 because he apparently saw Peter Schweizer on Fox News (the president name-checks Schweizer, the author of Secret Empires: How the American Political Class Hides Corruption and Enriches Family and Friends, along with Fox News host Laura Ingraham, in his tweeted apologia) and then brought up the Bidens with the Ukrainians. Nor is it necessarily improper for the administration to be investigating a potential political rival: The Trump campaign itself was the subject of an investigation conducted under the Obama administration. And there was nothing obviously improper about that, either.

No, the Democrats had long ago decided to try to impeach Trump, and they decided to do so in December 2016 — because he won. There’s no point pretending otherwise.

The Democrats have a funny habit when it comes to elections: When they win, they act like they’ll never lose again, and when they lose, they act like they’ll never win again. And their strategies reflect that. The cynical politicization of the judicial confirmation process seemed like a good idea to them back when Ronald Reagan was riding high and Robert Bork looked like an easy target, but when Republicans one-upped them in the matter of Merrick Garland, they cried foul. Making impeachment inquiries an ordinary part of daily partisan politics may look smart to congressional Democrats right now, and to Democratic presidential aspirants.

But there will come a time when it doesn’t.

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