What's Tony Thinking

Impeachment: What’s At Stake?


Last week Virginia Senator Tim Kaine floated the idea of bagging Trump’s second impeachment trial, set to begin on February 9, in favor of a resolution of censure.

I get it. Kaine and others want to get on with the initiatives of the new Biden administration and the many issues before the country. Besides, a censure has a chance of passing the Senate as it needs 60 votes rather than the 67 required for conviction in an impeachment trial.

And then there’s the whole business of putting Trump back in the spotlight and the risk, in Yoga Berra’s famous words, of “deja vu all over again.” Besides, it’s nearly a month since the January 6 insurrection. We suffer from — here’s a new term — “recency bias.” Gravitating to the crisis of the moment, we have a hard time staying with anything for very long. “Let’s have hearings on Game Stop!”

I remain in favor of the impeachment proceeding. Why? What’s at stake here?

Is the key thing a legal prohibition to keep Trump from running for office again? That would be nice, but it’s not what’s at stake.

Is it the principal of “accountability”? That a guy who got away with so much bad-acting while in office gets off scot-free again? Accountability is important, but that’s not the bottom line either.

What matters here is the institution of the U.S. Congress, House and Senate, the second branch of government and the whole apparatus of our constitutionally-mandated government. The institution needs to stand up for itself and muster some self-confidence.

I know, “institutional integrity” and “institutional confidence” may not be mantras that stir the blood. But they should be. Call it, “defense of the Constitution.”

The bottom line, what’s at stake, is that the former President orchestrated an attack on the second branch of government and on its ability to perform its constitutionally-mandated duty of ratifying our election. This is serious business — or it should be.

I have quoted several times in recent weeks from Yuval Levin’s recent book, A Time To Build. It is, among other things, a defense of the importance of healthy and robust institutions in a time when institutions all across the board have suffered decline and weakness. If you want to score points and sound bold these days, attack the “institutional (fill-in-the-blank).”

Here’s Levin,

” . . . the failures of our institutions have led us to demand they be uprooted or demolished, but we cannot address those failures without renewing and rebuilding those very institutions. We are right to be fed up with our institutions sometimes, but we need them to be respectable and legitimate. It is right that anti-institutionalism should guide our reactions against the excesses of institutional strength, but our problems today are more like the excesses of institutional weakness, and so they require recommitment and reform rather than resentment.” (italics added) “Defund the police,” would be a case in point.

Levin is right. They problem with our institutions these days is not their overbearing strength, but their fecklessness, their weakness. I have argued a similar point about leadership. As a society, we tend to be on a constant red-alert for any leader who appears too strong, but we have missed what is more often our real problem, weak and ineffectual leadership. (think Seattle Schools)

Levin makes the further point that institutional strength and integrity matter most for the most vulnerable among us. “To defend institutions is not to defend the status quo, or the strong, or the privileged. Functional institutions [think police, courts, schools] are most important for people who don’t have power or privilege.”

Over some years now, Congress as a body and institution has lost a sense of its own institutional role and integrity. Party loyalty has trumped loyalty to Congress as a functioning legislative institution. Add in (as we have of late) individuals who treat elective office as a platform for self-promotion (e.g. Majorie Taylor Greene, most recent case in point) rather than doing their job, and you’ve got the dysfunctional Congress where no actual legislation gets done — people are too busy appearing on FOX News or MSNBC.

The impeachment trial is a chance for Congress to stand up for itself and for the nation by saying that there are norms and laws that must be respected, even held sacred, otherwise we become a mafia state like Russia or a banana-republic like Guatemala. A president cannot willfully undermine a nation’s elections whether by the big lie or by armed assault.

For this reason, I hope the impeachment trial will be in the old-time line of the “Dragnet” show, “Just the facts, ma’m.” The less personal vitriol aimed at Trump or the Republican Party the better. The less sanctimonious rhetoric the better. Give us, give the jurors, i.e. the Senate, the facts.

If, as seems likely, the majority of the Republicans choose party loyalty and/or fear of Trump and his base over the integrity of the institution and constitution they have sworn to serve, so be it. Sometimes you have to do the right thing even if you don’t get the right outcome.


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