Too easy? Naaah, because this faceplant goes further than the truly obvious gaffe. This conversation between MSNBC’s Katy Tur and Washington Post reporter Philip Bump uncovers a far deeper problem than the civic ignorance displayed in attempting to blame gerrymandering for an outcome in the Senate — where House districts don’t play a role at all. It gets to the heart of a fundamental misunderstanding about the Senate’s role, and why conviction on impeachment is one place where “the majority doesn’t always rule” by design.
TUR: In case you missed it, majority doesn’t always rule in this country. Forty-eight senators voted to remove the President from office. Fifty-two voted to acquit. But the 48 actually represent 12 million more voters than the senators who decided to keep Donald Trump in the White House.
In case you missed it? The supermajority requirement for conviction is explicitly stated in the Constitution, so the only way to miss that is to not read the text. We’ll get back to that at the end, but let’s take a look at the other argument in Tur’s statement, one which Bump made on Wednesday. The argument goes like this: 63 million people voted for Trump, but 69 million voted for the Senators who voted to convict.
And … so?
Those 63 million people, the people who backed Trump in the 2016 presidential contest, were presented as being at risk of having their presidential vote thrown out. For the Senate to vote to convict Trump on the charges presented by the House would be nothing short of an undoing of the election that brought Trump to power, his attorneys argued.
What that calculus ignores, of course, is that Trump is not the only person who serves with a mandate of voters. In 2018, voters handed Democrats a majority in the House, providing enough votes for the party to impeach Trump for his efforts to pressure Ukraine.
The members of the House who supported the first article of impeachment received about 38.5 million votes in 2018 — over 6 million more votes than were cast for members who opposed the article. In the Senate, the difference was even more stark. Nearly 69 million votes were cast for senators who supported removing Trump from office based on that first article of impeachment, about 12 million more votes than were received by senators who opposed his removal.
No one’s disputing the fact that Democrats won the House and the power of impeachment, which is constitutionally set for a simple majority in the lower chamber. One could argue — although Democrats claimed not to be running on this issue at the time — that the 2018 midterm was some sort of referendum on impeachment to justify the House’s actions. (It’s more likely that 2020 will be a referendum on it, but it’s still an arguable point.)
Ascribing that kind of referendum to the Senate, however, is just nutty. All 435 House seats were up for election in 2018, but only roughly a third of the current Senate won an election in which Trump was president. Two-thirds of them won their last election in either 2014 or 2016, well before Trump took any presidential action at all. Voters cast those votes, even in the 2016 election, well before anyone knew Trump would be president.
Furthermore, Republicans actually gained Senate seats in the 2018 midterms as more red states had Democratic incumbents losing their offices. Plus, Bump makes the data classification error of assuming that every voter in each state supports or opposes removal based on the outcome of the Senate election. The reality is more nuanced than that — much more nuanced.
But even if we credit that idea to the current composition of the Senate and the idea that Senators are supposed to reflect direct popular will (another fallacy), 69 million only accounts for 55% of voters in the last election, and for that matter about 30% or less of all Americans. The Constitution requires a two-thirds supermajority to remove a president from office, a requirement added precisely to counter the very pressure Tur and Bump are citing.
The removal by the legislature of a duly and directly elected president by the people is so grave and so potentially dangerous that the founders wanted to make sure that it never happened without a broad, cross-partisan consensus. To do otherwise would create an unstable, quasi-parliamentary system in which immediate populist passions would negate any credibility for presidential elections. The founders were more concerned about populist anger over presidential policies and geographical interests aligning against the executive more than one party of an entrenched two-party system, of course. The dangers of partisan removals based on brute-force majoritarianism remain the same regardless of the point of division, however, and so does the high bar for removal, for very good reason.
Even using Bump’s 55% calculation and Tur’s argument, there was no such consensus. In fact, the 55% calculation on which both rest their case explicitly relies on partisan affiliation to argue that the vote should have gone to removal, in effect proving why the two-thirds bar exists in the first place.
This brings us back to the embarrassing moment when Tur wonders whether gerrymandering has anything to do with the Senate’s purported failure to directly represent the overall popular sentiment:
TUR: So what’s the resolution to that? Is gerrymandering something that would help improve the situation? Is – how does that sort of divide promote consensus in the Senate or even in the House?
BUMP: Well, I mean, the only resolution – gerrymandering is not going to do anything because in the Senate we’re talking about states, right?
BUMP: You can’t gerrymander states. The only solution is for Democrats to appeal to voters in those states, right?
Go figure. Besides, the Senate was not supposed to represent overall popular will in the first place, but the interests of the states as balanced against (if necessary) the popular will in the House. That springs from the sovereignty of the states recognized in the constitutional framework and the restrictions on federal power included in the Constitution. The 17th Amendment blurred that distinction, but it still exists and still works to allow smaller states some protection against being steamrollered by more populous states.
Finally, Bump’s point at the end is the real question. Just how much appeal will Democrats’ obsession with impeachment have for voters in the next election? And when will media outlets start providing remedial civics courses for their on-air talent?