The 1974 vote in the House of Representatives to give the Judiciary Committee broad subpoena power for its investigation into whether or not President Richard Nixon committed any impeachable offenses passed 410-4. Some political observers might see that tally, with more than 100 Republican members of Congress voting to try to get the whole truth of the Watergate affair out in the open, and bemoan the death of a more bipartisan era.
But those same observers ought to be cheered by the response of Steny Hoyer, the number-two Democrat in the House, to the long-awaited Mueller report this week. “Based on what we have seen to date, going forward on impeachment is not worthwhile at this point,” he said yesterday to CNN’s Dana Bash. “Very frankly, there is an election in 18 months and the American people will make a judgement.” Adam Schiff, the Democratic chairman of the House intelligence committee, said that impeachment would be pointless “barring a bipartisan consensus,” because “you don’t bring a case if you don’t think you’re going to be successful just to try the case.”
This happens to be the same position taken by Republican members of Congress. I’m happy to say that the spirit of bipartisanship lives on. The belief that our political institutions are capable of holding anyone accountable for malfeasance has died.
Special counsel Robert Mueller’s report on Russian interference in the 2016 election shows multiple attempts by President Donald Trump to obstruct the investigation, clearly driven by panic that Mueller’s team would uncover something disastrous for his presidency. Trump was fairly explicit on this point from the very beginning. When he was informed of Mueller’s appointment, he raged at his attorney general, Jeff Sessions. “Oh my God,” he said, according to notes taken by Sessions’s chief of staff. “This is terrible. This is the end of my Presidency. I’m fucked.”
Trump was, as he often is, incorrect. He perhaps overestimated the scope of Mueller’s inquiry, which was limited strictly to Russian electoral interference. He almost certainly underestimated the political cowardice of his political opponents.
If Trump is fixated on testing the limits of his power, constantly suggesting (and sometimes outright demanding) his subordinates violate the law on his behalf, his congressional opposition is led by people, like Hoyer, terrified to exercise their own power. They’re worried that an acquittal in Mitch McConnell’s Senate would be seen, by the public and the mainstream press, as a vindication of Trump rather than another lesson in the lengths the Republican Party will go to cover for a clearly unfit and crooked president. But it doesn’t even have to go that far.
Democrats who preemptively declare impeachment off the table are mistakenly (or intentionally) conflating one possible end result of the impeachment process for the process itself. The Republican members of Congress who voted to open an impeachment inquiry into Nixon’s conduct didn’t necessarily want it to end in his removal from office; even up until his resignation, it was an open question whether there were enough votes in the Senate to remove him. They were trying to get at the truth about the administration’s actions, and using impeachment to gather evidence. (They didn’t even limit themselves to Watergate. The committee eventually also voted on whether to impeach Nixon for the illegal bombing of Cambodia and for failure to pay taxes.)
As Patrick Blanchfield says, impeachment, even if it “fails” in the Senate, is a chance to take a moral stand against corruption and unaccountable elites. As Jeff Hauser writes, it is a chance to weave the disparate (and quickly forgotten) scandals of the entire Trump presidency into a single narrative that the easily distracted (and even more easily spun) mainstream press can follow.
The problem is, Hoyer apparently doesn’t want to do those things. What Hoyer and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (who ruled out impeachment well before anyone read the Mueller Report) want is to write op-eds about how many bills they are passing, despite the fact that those bills (like, uh, impeachment) will never get through the Senate.
Democratic leadership seemingly believes that the party can’t let its candidates campaign on promises to materially improve the lives of voters while also letting its elected officials carry out the responsibilities of their offices. They also believe, deep in their bones, that the country is not on their side. They believe going after Trump too directly will stir his mighty base, rather than imagining that full and transparent investigations into his various fraudulent and corrupt activities may demoralize his staunchest supporters—just as Trump himself was demoralized at the prospect of Mueller’s investigation—while also persuading those people who aren’t already in the cult of MAGA that this administration, and the party that abets it, need to be soundly defeated.
Once again, we can celebrate a modern example of bipartisanship: a deep conviction, on both sides, that the only legitimate force in American politics is white grievance.