“House impeaches Trump for abuse of power for the first time,” I should say.
No, no, I kid. There’s no realistic scenario in which Democrats impeach him again, no matter how much they may fantasize about it (and they surely do). If he wins a second term, party leaders will conclude that impeachment backfired spectacularly and both sides will treat it like uranium for the next 25 years. Whereas if he loses, he’s no longer their problem. In that case the opposite lesson will be learned, that impeaching a president during his first term is an effective way to weaken him ahead of reelection. Which means we’ll definitely — definitely — see the new Democratic president impeached in 2023 if Republicans take back the House in the midterms.
But if he wins, POTUS would have to do something off-the-charts wacky to get them to try this again in his second term, something so undeniably bad that they’d feel they had no choice but to reproach him formally despite the barrage of “Trump Derangement Syndrome” and “Do-Nothing Democrats” fire they’d surely take as a result. Think Ukraine times 10. Really, really, really bad.
Fifty-fifty chance. We’ll see.
In the meantime, I think this tweet from AOC spoke a secret truth about the Democratic impeachment push. It’s about Ukraine but it’s not really about Ukraine.
No normal person would be able to get away with attempting to extort a foreign power to compromise our country.
But all too often, the most corrupt and powerful people grow so accustomed to life with impunity that standard accountability feels to them like unjust persecution. https://t.co/mjPF1xZogT
— Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (@AOC) December 18, 2019
“Life with impunity.” Even before I saw that, I had the sense that he was being impeached as a sort of lifetime achievement award, the way an aging actor will get an Oscar for a role that’s clearly not his defining performance but which the Academy felt obliged to give him because he was unfairly overlooked in the past. His critics have been watching him commit political sins large and small for the past four years with no real penalty, and of course they’re aware of the many personal sins he’s either committed or been accused of committing before he entered politics. The allegations of sexual misconduct. The dubious “Trump University” saga. Petty chicanery involving his charitable foundation. The seedy Stormy Daniels payoff. The mystery of the tax returns. Add in all the stuff since 2017 — various top campaign cronies facing prison time, emoluments issues related to his businesses, sleazy pardons, endless demagoguery of political opponents, daily indignities on his Twitter account. In spite of it all, he’s the president of the United States, a fabulously wealthy man, an international celebrity and TV star even before he entered politics, and the focus of an adoring national-savior cult of personality. He’s a stupendous American success, not in spite of his character but because of it. To his opponents the Trump story is a story of perverse incentives, demonstrating how far you can go if you can just manage to forever avoid accountability.
So Democrats hung impeachment on him. The point isn’t to see him removed, which was never in the cards, it’s to brand him with a stigma he’ll bear forever as a reminder that he was, in the end, held accountable. Unfit for office: Lifetime achievement.
Even Trump reportedly can’t believe that the Ukraine business is what finally brought them to it:
Privately, he's stewing. Close adviser says Trump is somewhat taken aback that his actions toward Ukraine are ultimately what led to his likely impeachment: "Frankly, I think he's a little surprised it's the Ukraine thing that's done it." w/ @kaitlancollins and @Kevinliptakcnn
— Jim Acosta (@Acosta) December 11, 2019
Of all the things they’ve criticized him for, this is what triggered the nuclear option? It’s like sending Al Capone to prison for tax evasion. But if you understand it as payback for a lifetime of rule-bending and -breaking, it makes more sense. It’s not so much an impeachable offense as a final straw. (Until tomorrow, when new straws start piling up.)
I think Ben Domenech is right about a key irony in all this. One reason Pelosi concluded that it was safe to proceed with impeachment is that it just won’t matter in the long run: There are too many distractions in modern American politics for voters to focus on any one thing for long. The irony is that Trump himself is a big part of why that is. In an age of ubiquitous media and febrile hyperpartisanship, a president willing and able to generate partisan noise 24/7 provides too many shiny objects per day for people to obsess about any one. Normally that’s a great asset to Trump. There’s never time to drill down on the latest outrageous tweet or scandalous development; the news cycle moves on within minutes, forcing observers to digest quickly and brace themselves for the next helping. That may even help explain why the polling on impeachment has slipped over time. Who the hell is capable of following a story for weeks anymore? Trump is generating his own noise to counterprogram tonight’s big vote, holding a rally in Michigan where he’s riffing and firing off all sorts of soundbites to crowd out tomorrow’s impeachment news. His ability to change the subject, or at least to force others to engage the subject on his terms, is one of his foremost talents.
But it works against him with impeachment. The subject will change many, many times between now and the start of the Democratic primaries, never mind now and next November. And partisanship is already so intense that impeachment feels less like some shocking nuclear strike than a chess move that logically follows on the board given where the pieces are currently positioned. Harry Reid nuked part of the filibuster, then McConnell blocked Merrick Garland, then McConnell nuked more of the filibuster, then Democrats started talking up Court-packing, and so eventually we were destined to dent the norm that prohibits impeachment too. We’ll be on to something else soon. Domenech:
This transforms impeachment from being a matter of the utmost seriousness to just another method of chiding and censuring an executive the Congress can’t control. (Though it will be interesting to see what percentage of voters don’t realize that impeachment does not equal removal.) Will it matter? For a moment – but by Friday, we’ll be talking more about the outrage surrounding The Rise of Skywalker than impeachment. Culture bests politics, once again.
Perhaps that’s a good development. Impeachment thus becomes a perfect representation of our post-policy expectations for the legislative branch, where members are expected to stand as avatars of their base without any responsibility to get anything done. Impeachment is reduced to one more base-satisfying Instagram story, ephemeral, pointless, lacking any real consequence. It gives both political bases a temporary dopamine hit, and then we move on to the next scandal and outrage of the moment.
The House isn’t really a legislative chamber anymore, not when enough of the filibuster remains in the Senate to roadblock either party’s attempts to pass anything meaningful except last-minute must-pass funding bills. The House is a place to audition for Fox News and CNN segments. (Was there any better evidence than this afternoon’s embarrassing floor speeches?) Impeachment probably won’t matter because nothing Congress does matters much at this point, so Pelosi’s going to check the box, shrug, and move on.
But it’ll matter to one person. And that’s why they did it. Stand by for updates.
Update: And there it is.
#BREAKING: The House passes Article I – Abuse of Power 230-197
— CSPAN (@cspan) December 19, 2019
The two Democratic “no” votes were, of course, Collin Peterson and soon-to-be Republican Jeff Van Drew, the same two who voted against authorizing the impeachment inquiry. In the end Pelosi held almost the entire caucus together, all except for one Dem who opted to vote present. And who would that be?
That’d be Tulsi the Lionhearted, who couldn’t bring herself to alienate her party or her right-wing fan base so she chose the lamest, most weak-ass option available. Truly pitiful.
Not sure how @TulsiGabbard can defend a “present” vote on impeachment. One of the most consequential votes in any politician’s career and you can’t make a call one way or another? Why even be there, collecting a taxpayer-funded paycheck?
— Garrett Haake (@GarrettHaake) December 19, 2019
Update: I told you, they’re treating this as a lifetime achievement award.
"This is the first time in the man's life that he is facing any concrete judgement on the nature of his behavior," @chrislhayes says on MSNBC.
— Oliver Darcy (@oliverdarcy) December 19, 2019
Update: Pelosi reminds the caucus that impeachment is supposed to be solemn and prayerful.
The glare Pelosi gave her caucus when some Dems started to clap after she announced the first article of impeachment passed pic.twitter.com/8vONZlEyZ3
— Peter Stevenson (@PeterStevenson) December 19, 2019
Update: Lame, weak.
Dem HI Rep Gabbard on her “present” vote on impeachment: I could not in good conscience vote for impeachment because removal of a sitting President must not be the culmination of a partisan process, fueled by tribal animosities that have so gravely divided our country.
— Chad Pergram (@ChadPergram) December 19, 2019
If that’s how you feel, the appropriate vote is “no.” But it’s stupid to criticize impeachment for having been a “partisan” process, as any political proceeding with stakes this high is destined to be partisan. It’s tantamount to saying that all impeachments are tainted.
Update: Here’s Gabbard’s blah-blah about her vote. The key line is “I am standing in the center,” which I’m guessing is a prelude to her becoming an independent just as soon as she drops out of the Democratic primary. Whether she’s going to run for president as an independent next fall, which many Dems (like Hillary Clinton) have claimed was her scheme all along, remains to be seen. I’m guessing no, though: She seems to have more fans on the right than on the left at this point, so she’d probably do more harm to Trump than to the Democratic nominee.
Here’s her statement pic.twitter.com/Ky948XxILC
— Manu Raju (@mkraju) December 19, 2019
Update: The vote on the second article of impeachment is now official.
#BREAKING The House approves Article II – Obstruction of Congress 229-198
— CSPAN (@cspan) December 19, 2019
Same roll call as the first vote except for Democrat Jared Golden switching to no, as he indicated he’d do yesterday.