What Do The Democrats Have to Prove?

US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff (ANDREW CABALLERO-REYNOLDS/AFP/Getty Images)
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November 13, 2019 9:31 a.m.
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On virtually every talk show and daytime cable news discussion of impeachment, I hear the same question: Will the Democrats be able to make the case to the American people? Will they be able to make it clear enough, understandable enough, convincing enough? There’s often a Perils of Pauline tone about how the question is put to this or that guest, with Democrats on the line just as much as Republicans and perhaps hanging on the cusp of failure. Certainly the case can be made more or less well. I myself have pressed the importance of avoiding confounding obscurities like “quid pro quos” in favor of describing clearly what actually happened: an extortion plot to use a foreign power to sabotage a national election in the President’s favor.

But for all this the question itself misstates the situation in a critical way. What’s really being asked is whether Democrats will be able to convince not the American people but Republican partisans and more specifically congressional Republicans. And that is by design an all but impossible standard because they are deeply and unshakably committed to not being convinced.

This is not only the obvious verdict of the last three years. It’s even more clear with the questions which have emerged since September. Congressional Republicans have hopped from one argument to another: from no evidence of wrongdoing, to the wrongdoing is actually fine, to a rearguard action against a corrupt process. The chaos of arguments has zero logic or consistency beyond the simple and overriding one: of refusing to accept that the President did anything wrong no matter what evidence emerges and simply use whatever argument is available to justify that end.

You can see where the “can the Democrats convince” line goes. Democrats hurl themselves up against the Iron Wall of Republican refusal to defy Trump and fail to break the wall down by hurling their bodies up against it. Now, not only have they failed in their purpose they’ve shown themselves to be weak, poorly planned, poorly organized!, feckless and all the rest.

This is silly.

In every aspect of life understanding where you are and what you’re trying to do is the critical predicate not only to success but even to sanity. It is equally true that no sane person willingly plays a game or has an argument or even wages a war where who won or lost is their adversary’s decision to make. That not only guarantees failure, it breeds a sense of helplessness and mawkish begging. It demoralizes supporters and puffs up opponents with a sense of unmerited power.

Public opinion surveys show the public is already pretty well convinced even in advance of public hearings. Overwhelming numbers see this kind of extortion and foreign election interference as wrong. Similar numbers believe the President did these things. Even in advance of public hearings roughly 50% of the voting population already supports the extreme step of removing the President from office — something that hasn’t happened in almost a quarter of a millenium of American history.

The reality of the situation is that there is overwhelming evidence of the basic facts of the situation. More than a dozen witnesses, almost all of them Trump appointees, tell a consistent story. There’s actually a near transcript of the President doing the deed. The only notional gaps in the evidence come from the absence of people who refuse to testify on the President’s authority. The plot itself involves using extortion to coerce a foreign government to sabotage a federal election on the President’s behalf. This violates two or three major federal laws in addition to being almost a definitional abuse of presidential power.

Certainly it is important to air the evidence publicly, clear up good faith confusions and nudge as many people who believe the President did something wrong but are hesitant about the upheaval of impeachment in the direction of supporting impeachment and removal. But the basic case simply makes itself. The evidence is overwhelming.

These points are all obvious and we owe the President’s defenders the respect of accepting that they realize it’s obvious too. They just have a mix of political, partisan and ideological reasons for justifying the President’s actions and preserving him in power.

As I said above, navigating life, politics and really anything requires understanding where you are and what you’re trying to do. The challenge the country faces today isn’t how well Democrats make some case. It’s that about 35% to 40% of the population wants to maintain a lawless President in office no matter what. That is a political problem, not a persuasion problem, with profound roots that long predate Donald Trump and equally profound dangers for the future.

The case, rather than needing to be made in some heroic fashion, really makes itself. The evidence is overwhelming. It’s not the Democrats who are on trial here, needing to prove themselves with some magisterial performance. Indeed, it’s not even really the President whose guilt is obvious and not even questioned with serious arguments. Who and what is on trial here is the Republican Party, which has made it pretty clear that they are willing to countenance any level of lawbreaking and abuses of power so long as it is done by a Republican or at least as long as it is Donald Trump.

The Democrats’ job is to lay out the evidence in a public setting and get elected Republicans to sign on the dotted line that this is presidential behavior they accept and applaud. That won’t be difficult. They have one last chance to change their answer. Democrats’ real job is to clarify and publicize that that is their answer.

This isn’t pollyannish. It is simply recognizing the nature of the crisis in which the country finds itself and avoiding nonsensical, bad-faith exercises that can only end in frustration. The aim for Democrats is to set forth, calmly and clearly, what the Republican party accepts and what it is and consolidate the non-Republican, non-authoritarian nationalist vote which supports the rule of law and the constitution. Since the GOP is self-indicting, President Trump will almost certainly not be removed from office and these questions, properly set forth, will go before the people in one year.

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