How is impeachment working out so far?
It is hard to see that anyone is better off. The President? The Republicans? The Democrats?
It is hard to see how the country is better off.
Watergate was different. The proceedings had substance and dignity, in large measure because the people conducting them did.
The Watergate crisis, following as it did the Vietnam war, the anti-war movement, and the killings of the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., and Robert Kennedy, was a trauma for the country. We had been through a lot. And now we were considering removing a president from office — no small thing.
The leaders who guided us through Watergate — Sam Ervin in the Senate, and Peter Rodino in the House — approached their task with great sobriety and care. They followed rules of evidence and procedure, and treated their Republican counterparts not as adversaries but partners. They did not have to do that. They wanted to. Because they wanted the system and the people to be stronger at impeachment’s end.
Those men, and their GOP colleagues, took pains to step back one step from pure partisan politics. As a result, as evidence mounted that the president had broken the law, men like Republican Sen. Howard Baker and Senate Watergate Committee minority counsel Fred Thompson detached from the party line. They went with the evidence.
Eventually a series of juridical proceedings caused the president’s political support to erode in the Senate. Politics followed a serious, deliberative process conducted by responsible people, some of whom emerged as statesmen.
Doing things in the reverse order will not work.
If we start with politics — highly partisan politics — it is unlikely that we will get a result that seems fair and just.
Yes, impeachment will always be an inherently political process. But, as with judicial nominations, if it is totally political, if there is no weighing of evidence or balancing of values, the process will not be seen as honest, or honorable, by much of the public. As traumatic as Watergate was, the country emerged stronger and feeling positive about our constitutional system and the ability of our leaders to manage crisis and conflict.
It has only been a week, but these hearings are not accomplishing a similar end. They are not educating, informing, and uplifting us. They are simply deepening already deep divisions.
What we have learned so far is that the President made at least one phone call, and maybe more, that many, perhaps most, would see as improper and a violation of presidential norms. That information is not new.
We have learned that professional diplomats and politicians had legitimate policy differences with the President. That is not new either.
We have learned that aid to Ukraine was held up for a time by the President. Democrats say it was bribery and a circuitous path to meddling in the 2020 election. Republicans see it as appropriate presidential bargaining based on concern about corruption. There is similar disagreement about the intent and actions in Ukraine by the Obama-Biden administration.
An election is surely the time and place to debate policy and norms. Impeachment is a totally different instrument. It is not a debate, a contest or a campaign, but a juridical proceeding.
It seems most likely that, at the end of the process, Democrats will see the President’s actions as impeachable, just as they did at the start of it, and that most Republicans will see them as justified.
In fact — and this ought to sober all of us — it is quite possible that not a single Democrat will say that violations of norms are not generally impeachable, and that there must be a “high crime” to impeach. And it is quite possible that not a single Republican will say: This was beyond the pale and impeachable.
No one will take off his or her jersey and behave with the indifference of a judge or jury. No one will even try. No statesmen and no nobility or deeper understanding will come of all this.
And if that is the outcome of these hearings, the moral, intellectual and constitutional health of the nation will not be helped but will be hurt.
And the bitterness of impeachment will further infect our already rancid national politics.