2020 Democrats are underselling the case for impeachment
The most recent Democratic primary debate started with a question on the impeachment of President Trump, and unsurprisingly, 11 of the 12 candidates on stage endorsed the process. While that unity is a good sign, the candidates missed an opportunity to make a more forceful case against the Trump administration's criminal conduct. There are likely worse revelations about the president's behavior inbound, and the sooner the Democratic hopefuls can hit the right notes on impeachment, the firmer ground they'll be on if and when they must square off with Trump himself.
Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) kicked it off with the familiar refrain that "no one is above the law, including the president of the United States" and that impeachment is necessary to halt the president's lawbreaking. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), mentioned the Emoluments Clause and brushed up against what he called "the Ukrainian incident" without elaborating. Former Vice President Joe Biden called Trump "the most corrupt president in modern history" yet declined to describe this corruption. Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) accused the president of "selling out our democracy," but didn't provide any details.
Only Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) mentioned that the president was "digging up dirt" on his July 25th phone call with Ukrainian President Volodymr Zelensky and called it "illegal conduct." South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg and Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-Hawaii) focused on impeachment's divisiveness. Billionaire Tom Steyer, apparently, said something. Others, like former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julian Castro, tried the classic "thank you for your question but here's what I'd actually like to talk about" routine. All in all, there was not much in the way of direct charges thrown at the president. And if you tuned in to the debate knowing little to nothing about the Ukraine scandal, you certainly didn't learn much new information from these Democrats. We needed more exposition, and we didn't get it. And that's a problem.
The candidates' cliché-riddled responses about impeachment did not discuss which laws Trump had broken with the Ukraine operation he ran with his lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, and a host of other officials, like the comically unprepared EU Ambassador Gordon Sondland. No one pointed out that Trump's attempted extortion of Ukraine fits the definition of bribery, which is one of only two specific things — along with treason — that the authors of the Constitution bothered to put down in writing as examples of an impeachable offense. The Founders may not have foreseen all or even most contingencies in the future, but this one they had down.
Not one of the six current or former senators, or anyone else for that matter, stood up for the principle of congressional oversight of the executive branch, or highlighted the Trump administration's outrageous plan to stymie the impeachment inquiry by totally denying it documents and witnesses, or raised the question of whether the president's business interests in Turkey might have compromised him and led him to abandon the Syrian Kurds to the predations of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, even when the issue came up at length later in the debate.
The Democratic candidates' failure to take the lead in crafting the narrative of Trump's impeachment is particularly puzzling since the party's congressional leadership is plainly not up to the task of spearheading the public relations campaign for impeachment. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) may be a talented strategist, but she is no longer particularly deft in front of the cameras. The less said about Sen. Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), the better. The best and most effective advocates for impeachment have been younger progressives like New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. And while public opinion has converged, narrowly, on impeaching and removing the president, there are still far too many Democrats telling pollsters they don't support it.
There's another reason 2020 Democrats need to get radical about impeachment, and fast: We have likely not even scratched the surface of revelations about the Ukraine extortion caper. When former top Russia adviser Fiona Hill testified before Congress on Tuesday, she provided merely the latest evidence that Giuliani and Trump's criminal conspiracy to hold the new Ukrainian government over a barrel until it fabricated an "investigation" into the Bidens, and invented tinfoil-hat-catnip about the country's role in the 2016 election was common knowledge throughout the American government.
Acting White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney was involved. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Vice President Mike Pence were involved. Their behavior was so bananas that it offended the sensibilities of former National Security Adviser John Bolton, one of the most bloodthirsty human beings alive. Given the extraordinary hamfistedness of this crew and their inability to even whisper competently, let alone successfully keep a real secret, can you imagine the sheer number of people in the State Department and the National Security Council alone who have stories to tell? If I were running for president, I wouldn't want to be the one slow-playing this.
Getting radical about impeachment means more than just uttering "no one is above the law" before getting back to the "kitchen table" issues that some party elites think are more important and more salient to the voting public. The best argument against Trump involves tying the corruption of the president and his family to the casino capitalism the Republican Party has foisted on American society, where the rich are subject to an entirely different legal and financial order than everyone else. Self-dealing at Mar-a-Lago and the president's children getting rich during his presidency and the coddling of oligarchs and dictators and the brazen scheme in Ukraine and the audacious claim that it is all 100 percent above congressional scrutiny are all part of the same story: impunity.
Whoever gets the Democratic nomination will quickly become the party's de facto ideological and political leader. If that person can't speak, at length and in ways both convincing and devastating, about why the president's conduct in office has been both fully self-interested and deeply criminal, they are kicking away an opportunity to keep the public focused on the worst and most disruptive features of the Trump presidency, things that represent a multi-front assault on democracy itself. And while there are obviously other issues to litigate and run on, impeachment really ought to be front and center of the debate Democrats are having amongst themselves today.
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