Generally speaking, the efforts by both Democrats and Republicans to shape the larger story of the Trump impeachment are painfully obvious—the equivalent of reading stage directions. Democrats—along with the former Republican Justin Amash—want to drive home the larger constitutional importance of the event. Republicans want to argue that impeachment is nothing more than a partisan sham. Why else, after all, would Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi emphasize over and over again the “somberness” of impeachment? And why else would Republicans insist, over and over again, red in the face, that Democrats are engaged in a coup against 63 million common citizens and their votes?
But the Republican story rests also on a more subtle tactic as well. Watching the impeachment proceedings, Ezra Klein of Vox argued that the strategy of the president’s supporters in the House was to make impeachment “partisan and angry and vicious and impossible to parse” in an effort to encourage voters just tuning in for the first time to change the channel. In this respect, the goofiness of the proceedings—the strange stunts, the yelling, the insistent repetition of the party line—are the Republican narrative. So, too, are all the other procedural debates and relatively small-bore concerns that have sucked up oxygen in the wake of the impeachment vote. Will Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell agree to allow witnesses in the Senate trial? When is the optimal time for Pelosi to present the articles of impeachment to the Senate? If she doesn’t, has the president technically been impeached yet?
Some of these questions matter. Some of them, well, don’t. But focusing too much on the squabbling over these issues draws attention away from the larger historical importance of the vote. Impeachment becomes a lot of confusion and yelling—instead of something that actually defends important democratic values.
The solution? Don’t get bogged down in the silliness.
Step back and give the events of this week the space they need to breathe. Try to force yourself to view this vote with some of the distance with which we can now view the Johnson and Clinton impeachments, as an inflection point in the constitutional narrative. This doesn’t mean ignoring the little questions on which such narratives are built. But it does mean endeavoring always to keep the larger story in focus. Whatever comes next—the negotiations over the Senate trial, the swarm of angry presidential tweets, and, yes, the inevitable vote by a majority of senators to acquit the president—don’t let it overshadow the fact that the House of Representatives impeached President Trump, declaring that his actions were unacceptable and that he had breached the promise he made to preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution. It’s no small thing.
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