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Impeachment Won’t End the Eternal Trump Fight

Senator Bernie Sanders talks to reporters during a break in the procedural start of the Senate impeachment trial of U.S. President Donald Trump in Washington, January 16, 2020. (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)

On the menu today: Why the impeachment trial is a remarkably lifelike simulation of an actually consequential, high-stakes political fight; why some Vermont Democrats don’t like Bernie Sanders and what the senator doesn’t seem to appreciate about political leadership; that guy you almost never remember never had a plan, as he insisted; and bringing a little something different to The Editors.

The Impeachment Drama That Is . . . Not All That Dramatic

With the coming Senate impeachment trial, we’re breaking ground on some sort of new and worse form of politics, a remarkably lifelike simulation of an actually consequential, high-stakes political fight, where the result is preordained and the lasting effects will be minimal.

The argument around impeachment is more or less the same argument we’ve been having since late 2015: “Donald Trump should not be president.” The specifics change, but the general argument is the same: He can’t distinguish between his personal interest and the national interest, he’s selfish, corrupt, crass, obnoxious, erratic, intemperate, barely knows the Constitution and isn’t interested in learning, demands others’ absolute loyalty to himself but demonstrates none to others, berates his staff, is easily flattered, publicly vents all of his rage in Twitter tantrums . . .

I happen to agree with a lot of those criticisms. But the GOP nominated him and enough people in enough states voted for him; the country has to live with the consequences of their decision, good or bad, until the next election. Republicans accuse Democrats of wanting to “undo the election.” I think that a lot of Democrats are more or less saying, “yes, this is exactly what we want to do. The voters got it wrong. Every day he demonstrates that they got it wrong. The election should be undone.”

In addition to the negative traits listed above, Trump is a narcissist, which means that even though he doesn’t like being impeached, he does like that the biggest news story is all about him. Impeachment stirs his blood.

Every day, we get some slight variation of the same argument: “Trump should have never been president, and based upon today’s news, he should not be allowed to remain president.” And the president and his fans respond, with versions of, “yes, he should remain president, he is the greatest.” Lots of people really enjoy having this argument, over and over again, even though you almost never see anyone changing their mind. You don’t need to know much to jump into this never-ending argument. You don’t need to know economics, or foreign policy, or social policy, or the law, or any policy at all. You just need to have an opinion — up or down, good or bad.

From the beginning, Democrats have known they’re not getting 67 votes to remove in the Senate. Trump has known this. The media has known this. It’s ultimately a fruitless exercise, unless you believe there’s a symbolic value to an impeachment that fails, setting down a record for history. Trump certainly isn’t going to come out of this process chastened, humbled, or defanged. The only thing that stops him being president is the decision of the voters in November. And yet not only are we all supposed to be emotionally invested in this impeachment that was probably inevitable the moment Democrats won the House, we’re supposed to be riveted by each twist and turn in this impeachment process — even though we know the ending.

Whether the upcoming Senate trial features many witnesses, only a few witnesses, or no witnesses, this all ends the same. The result is the probably the same, with the Rudy letter, with Lev Parnas’s comments, with whatever big revelation comes out in the coming days or weeks. Perhaps Mitt Romney or Lisa Murkowski joins the pro-impeachment side. Perhaps not. The outcome would be the same. Perhaps Joe Manchin or Doug Jones votes against removal. That would change the final vote only by a little. It’s like we’re in a time-travel movie where it’s been proven that no matter what the protagonist does, fate intervenes to make sure history follows a certain path.

Impeachment is moving at the pace of a kidney stone because far too many of the forces involved want it to move slowly. Democrats think they’re inflicting political damage on the president and GOP. (I’m not quite so convinced.) Trump thinks this is the greatest injustice in the history of mankind and he loves to talk about how unfairly he’s treated. The media is convinced we’re watching history being written. (Three impeachments in 45 years means it’s not that rare.)

We’ve seen both sides announce record fundraising from this. Impeachment keeps the bases riled up and enthusiastic. It enables both sides to say that they’re “fighters” and that they’re “not backing down” from the obvious malfeasance and injustice of the other side. It allows everyone involved to believe that they’re doing something of remarkable and historic importance, even though it has almost no impact on anyone outside the Beltway.

Bernie’s Record on Winning Friends and Influencing People

You may have seen the headline: “Bernie ‘will play dirty’: Ex-Vermont governor slams Sanders” over at Politico. When I first saw it, I figured it was Howard Dean. Some conservatives might see two Vermont liberals and figure they must have been close allies, but the two men had a lot of friction, and if you read between the lines, you get the sense that they really disdain each other.

In 1996, then-governor Howard Dean said he had never voted for Sanders, who was then in his third term as a congressman. Dean said he had left his ballot blank. In 1993, when Sanders was pushing for the state to embrace Canadian-style single-payer health care, Dean accused Sanders of being dishonest about the costs. As a superdelegate, Dean voted for Hillary Clinton over Sanders in 2016. In December 2017, Howard Dean said during an appearance on MSNBC that older members of the Democratic party need “to get the hell out of the way and have somebody who is 50 running the country.”

But the Politico article is about another former Democratic governor of Vermont.

In an interview with POLITICO, Peter Shumlin — who has endorsed Joe Biden for president in 2020 and served as Vermont’s governor from 2011 to 2017, while Sanders represented the state in the Senate — warned that Sanders, an independent and a self-described democratic socialist, ultimately did not feel loyalty to Democrats.

“What I’ve seen in Bernie’s politics is he and his team feel they’re holier than the rest. In the end, they will play dirty because they think that they pass a purity test that Republicans and most Democrats don’t pass,” said Shumlin. “What you’re seeing now is, in the end, even if he considers you a friend, like Elizabeth Warren, Bernie will come first. That’s the pattern we’ve seen over the years in Vermont, and that’s what we are seeing now nationally.”

Traditionally, the other lawmakers of the same party in a candidate’s home state are his biggest allies and cheerleaders, and for what it’s worth, Senator Patrick Leahy and Representative Peter Welch have endorsed Sanders. And as far as we can tell, most of Sanders’s colleagues in the Senate appear to respect him, and/or have a cordial enough relationship with him. But you don’t get a sense that there’s a lot of warmth or deep admiration. Most of Sanders’s legislation never goes anywhere. His Senate colleagues don’t see him as an effective legislator. Since Trump’s election, he’s been just another voice in chorus of opponents, introducing bills that everyone knows won’t pass.

Right around now, the Sanders defenders will insist that’s just because Sanders has never been a back-slapping deal-maker. Except . . . in our system, as much as they get denounced and demonized, back-slapping deal-makers are the kinds of political figures who get things done. I don’t know if I’ll ever read Robert Caro’s epic-length biographies of Lyndon Johnson, but I’ve read some of Caro’s essays and other writings about Johnson, and if there’s anything that he’s tried to teach us, it’s how unbelievably smoothly Johnson could ingratiate himself to other senators and gradually increase his influence and leverage over them. Caro made this comment in an interview: “LBJ made these [Southern segregationist senators] believe for 20 years that he believed something he didn’t believe at all. When people say that power corrupts . . . I don’t happen to believe that. Power reveals. When you’re on your way up, you have to conceal what you intend to do. Once you get power, then you see it, what he really wanted to do.” The ability to build strong and trusted relationships with your peers, even when you disagree, is an extraordinarily undervalued trait in our politics. A lot of people argue that either everyone or the vast majority of the political opposition is the embodiment of all manner of horrific traits and sins, and then later fume in frustration that the other side’s lawmakers are never willing to compromise. Why would they want to help you when you’ve spent so much time demonizing them?

Bernie Sanders would like to be another Lyndon Johnson, in terms of the sweeping legislation he would like to pass and the far-reaching expansion of government he would like to enact. But Sanders is nothing like LBJ in his relationships with other people in Washington. In the still not-terribly-likely scenario he becomes president, he will find this hard truth of leadership extremely frustrating.

Hey, Remember This Guy?

At what point can we conclude that Deval Patrick was not, in fact, “right on time” in his entry to the race as he contended, and that he did have illusions about how hard it would be to run for president, as he vehemently denied? How many times have you even thought about him since he entered the race in November?

Can we now safely say that his plan was to jump in and hope everyone instantly fell in love with him?

ADDENDUM: Over on The Editors podcast, I am steadily, week by week, increasing the number of references to 1990s pop culture.

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