44 former Senators: 'The foundational principles of our democracy' are at stake

A bipartisan group of 44 former Senators issued a letter last night warning about…something. Honestly, this letter could be a case study in why writing things by committee is often a mistake. The letter does mention Robert Mueller’s investigation and Democrats’ plans to investigate “the president and his administration.” It even says “the foundational principals of our democracy” are at stake. But at stake from what? From Trump? From zealous Democrats in the House? For a letter that is clearly trying to sound an alarm, it doesn’t do a very good job of identifying the threat. One clear line like “The redcoats are coming!” would really help. Instead, we get something that sounds like it was written as a title crawl for Star Wars Episode IX:

As former members of the U.S. Senate, Democrats and Republicans, it is our shared view that we are entering a dangerous period, and we feel an obligation to speak up about serious challenges to the rule of law, the Constitution, our governing institutions and our national security.

We are on the eve of the conclusion of special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s investigation and the House’s commencement of investigations of the president and his administration. The likely convergence of these two events will occur at a time when simmering regional conflicts and global power confrontations continue to threaten our security, economy and geopolitical stability.

It is a time, like other critical junctures in our history, when our nation must engage at every level with strategic precision and the hand of both the president and the Senate.

We are at an inflection point in which the foundational principles of our democracy and our national security interests are at stake, and the rule of law and the ability of our institutions to function freely and independently must be upheld.

The style really does remind me of the opening of The Empire Strikes Back: “It is a dark time for the Rebellion. Although the Death Star has been destroyed, Imperial troops have driven the Rebel forces from their hidden base and pursued them across the galaxy.” Actually, no, that’s a lot more clear than this letter. Putting the style aside, what exactly are the authors trying to say? Let’s jump to the conclusion and see if we can figure this out:

Regardless of party affiliation, ideological leanings or geography, as former members of this great body, we urge current and future senators to be steadfast and zealous guardians of our democracy by ensuring that partisanship or self-interest not replace national interest.

In sum, put country above party. Of course, that advice could mean many things depending on where one is standing. For instance, it could mean not letting the resistance zealots in the House impeach the president in a partisan attempt to damage him before the 2020 elections. On the other hand, some on the far left would surely argue that putting country first at this moment means pressuring Trump from office rather than defending him. Which partisan enthusiasm are Senators supposed to be avoiding?

At this point, we have to note that there are 44 signatories to this letter, 32 of whom are Democrats (10 are Republicans and two are Independents). Here’s the full list:

Max Baucus (D-Mont.), Evan Bayh (D-Ind.), Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.), Bill Bradley (D-N.J.), Richard Bryan (D-Nev.), Ben Nighthorse Campbell (R-Colo.), Max Cleland (D-Ga.), William Cohen (R-Maine), Kent Conrad (D-N.D.), Al D’Amato (R-N.Y.), John C. Danforth (R-Mo.), Tom Daschle (D-S.D.), Dennis DeConcini (D-Ariz.), Chris Dodd (D-Conn.), Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.), David Durenberger (R-Minn.), Russ Feingold (D-Wis.), Wyche Fowler (D-Ga.), Bob Graham (D-Fla.), Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.), Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), Gary Hart (D-Colo.), Bennett Johnston (D-La.), Bob Kerrey (D-Neb.), John Kerry (D-Mass.), Paul Kirk (D-Mass.), Mary Landrieu (D-La.), Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.), Blanche Lincoln (D-Ark.), Richard Lugar (R-Ind.), Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.), Ben Nelson (D-Neb.), Sam Nunn (D-Ga.), Larry Pressler (R-S.D.), David Pryor (D-Ark.), Don Riegle (D-Mich.), Chuck Robb (D-Va.), Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.), Jim Sasser (D-Tenn.), Alan Simpson (R-Wyo.), Mark Udall (D-Colo.), John W. Warner (R-Va.), Lowell Weicker (I-Conn.), Tim Wirth (D-Colo.)

So if you had to guess what a group that is 3/4 Democrats meant when warning about the dangers of partisanship, what would you guess they had in mind?

The most charitable reading of this is that there are partisans on the left (the House) and the right (the White House) who need to be held in check by the adults in the room (the Senate). That might explain why the letter keeps bringing up “simmering regional conflicts and global power confrontations.” It’s a warning not to take our eye off the ball while Iran is testing missiles, North Korea is building underground test sites, Russia is meddling in Ukraine, France is overwhelmed with riots, etc., etc. The world won’t stop burning because we decide to spend a year focused on partisan enthusiasms. As the world’s only superpower, we need to stay focused on America’s role in things happening beyond our domestic disputes.

The less charitable read is that a group of former Democratic Senators have roped in ten former Republican Senators to argue against putting up a fight when the wave of resistance efforts is launched by the new Democratic House in coordination with the findings of the Mueller’s investigation. The message here could be: For the sake of the country, don’t fight it. And given some of the names of the Democrats involved, that reading also seems entirely plausible.

Politico has  a piece up about the letter and their take is that this is reminiscent of another recent resistance message:

Though the op-ed did not refer to President Donald Trump by name, its ominous tone and solemn appeals were reminiscent of another opinion piece that recently riled up Washington — the anonymous letter published by The New York Times in September alleging that a “quiet resistance” within Trump’s executive branch had banded together to “frustrate parts of his agenda and his worst inclinations.”

And here’s Slate’s take on the letter which also sees room for multiple interpretations. However, based on the signatories, the author concludes the subtext is probably about not resisting #theResistance:

It is a bipartisan call that doesn’t exactly single out Donald Trump and is enablers directly, and could conceivably be read as an appeal to better angels on both sides, but the subtext of the letter is pretty clear as are the leanings of the former senators who signed. Of the signatories to the letter, just 10 are Republicans and not frothing-at-the-mouth Fox Newsified Republicans of the post-Tea Party era. The GOP senators who signed on are more the Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.), William Cohen (R-Maine), and John C. Danforth (R-Mo.) type of Republican, which, in itself, feels like a a throwback to a simpler time.

I suspect some of the authors of the letter will be on television to talk about it today. Maybe then we’ll get a definitive answer about what it is they were trying to say.