If you grew up trusting in the permanence of the American experiment in government and bought into the “shining city on a hill” idea for the American form of democracy, it is time to freak out.
It’s not that a President, impeached for inviting foreign influence into the US election, has a pretty good chance of winning reelection. It’s that, while there are plenty of Republican lawmakers who might privately admit that using taxpayer dollars to pressure a foreign government to do political favors is wrong, they seem unwilling or unable to call Trump to account publicly, and have instead ceded their power, undermining the system of checks and balances that has kept us going.
Late Friday, we were again reminded that we will keep learning details about the decision to withhold $400 million in aid from Ukraine, thanks to a court filing in which the Justice Department confirmed it’s withholding two dozen emails related to Trump’s role
. Trump’s attempts to pressure Ukraine to investigate Hunter Biden and Joe Biden, his potential political rival, have been at the center of the President’s impeachment trial. Trump has repeatedly made unfounded and false claims
to allege that the Bidens acted improperly in Ukraine.
There are still some holding out hope that some Republicans will change their minds and vote to remove Trump on Wednesday. That is about as plausible as earlier scenarios where Trump was somehow squeezed out of the nomination at the 2016 Republican National Convention, or defeated by the rebel votes of so-called faithless electors, or somehow prevented from taking the oath of office.
Where America goes is all going to be determined by the 2020 election now
The people don’t decide elections
But, strictly speaking, it won’t necessarily be “the people” who choose the next President. It will be the Electoral College, a layer the founders
put between the people and the presidency, which has evolved to give some Americans more voice than others.
It’s very likely the person who gets the most votes in November will not become President — which is what happened in 2016
. That awkward feature of a republic such as the United States has happened twice in the past twenty years. It could very easily happen again, given how unpopular Trump is in major population centers and how strong his support is in rural America, where voters have outsize power.
There are a handful of contested states and no matter who wins, about half the people will be frustrated.
Where’s the release valve?
It’s a similar situation in the Senate, where the system meant to sew the country together is tearing at the seams. Deep blue California has the fifth-largest economy in the world and 40 million residents, but it gets the same number of votes as red Wyoming
, which has marginally more residents than Fresno
Fresno and Wyoming put together are nowhere close to the population of Puerto Rico, an island full of Americans who can’t even vote for President unless they move to a US state.
The country has grown in such a way that racial and socioeconomic divides will continue to get worse. There is no release valve for the contents under pressure at the top of the US government, concentrated in the Senate.
Retreat into corners
CNN senior political analyst Ronald Brownstein wrote this week about how red and blue America, represented by two sets of states, do battle in the Senate rather than find common ground. Read the whole thing here
Today, the vast majority of senators from the President’s party are elected by states that also voted for him — increasing the pressure on them to stand with him — while virtually all senators from the other party were sent by states that voted against the President, increasing the pressure to oppose him. Of the 53 Republican senators judging Trump, 51 were elected in states that backed him in the 2016 election.
These electoral pressures have contributed to remaking the Senate into the rigid, combative institution on display this week — one in which the leadership exerts more control than in earlier generations, individual members are expected to display a level of party-line loyalty reminiscent of parliamentary systems in Europe and there is little leeway for the bipartisan deal-making that was the hallmark of great senators from Kentucky’s Henry Clay in the 19th century to Kansas’ Bob Dole and Massachusetts’ Edward M. Kennedy in the late 20th.
No room for dissent
We saw some reasons why that’s changed in the wake of Friday’s Senate vote against calling witnesses in Trump’s impeachment trial. Mitt Romney, the Utah senator and sometime Trump critic who was one of two Republicans to vote in favor of hearing witnesses at Trump’s trial has been “not invited”
to CPAC, the annual conference of conservatives, after stepping out of the GOP lane.
Granted, Romney did attempt to sabotage Trump’s campaign back in 2016. He has tried to maintain some independence as a senator. Other critics — Sens. Jeff Flake and Bob Corker
— were chased out of office. Michigan Rep. Justin Amash was chased from the party
before he voted to impeach Trump in the House.
Turned by the other side
Cowed, bullied or simply out for their own self-preservation as politicians, it should be concerning that honest dissent is not tolerated. Others have been flipped, sometimes in mystifying ways. Sen. Lindsey Graham used to be best friends
with John McCain and was just as opposed to Trump’s presidency as Romney in 2016. He compared a Trump presidency to death. Now, however, he has turned himself into a Trump-supporting warrior in the Senate. Trump didn’t change. Graham changed.
The few Republican lawmakers who, finally, during his impeachment and justifying their intention to acquit him, criticized Trump’s behavior with regard to Ukraine, said the people should get to choose their president.
“The question then is not whether the President did it, but whether the United States Senate or the American people should decide what to do about what he did,” said Sen. Lamar Alexander
, the retiring Tennessee Republican in a thoughtful and carefully worded statement about his vote
. “I believe that the Constitution provides that the people should make that decision in the presidential election that begins in Iowa on Monday.”
On Saturday, NBC released a clip from a “Meet the Press” interview
in which Alexander seemed to walk that back, too. “I think he shouldn’t have done it. I think it was wrong. Inappropriate was the way I’d say — improper, crossing the line.”
Future Presidents will use the power Trump has seized
The Democratic primary is turning into a referendum about the fundamental question — should the left mimic the tactics of the right, or is there a middle any more?
Sen. Elizabeth Warren has said she would do away with the filibuster
in the Senate to enact her policies. More recently, Sen. Bernie Sanders has said he will use executive authority — much like Trump — to end-run around Capitol Hill. He’d look at declaring a climate change a national emergency, potentially allowing the US to import cheaper prescription drugs from Canada and could order his Justice Department to effectively legalize marijuana, according to a Washington Post report.
The American system depends on compromise
You might agree with any or all of Warren or Sanders — or Trump’s — policies, but the whole essence of the system is compromise. No one gets everything they want but also no one gets nothing they want. But now it is zero sum all the time and make sure you kick your opponent on the way whenever you can.
Compromise is not supposed to be paralysis, but paralysis is the only thing lawmakers seem capable of.
After Democrats passed the 2009 health care law, they were unable to fine-tune it because Republicans were so bent on repeal. Now it lurches, a zombie system the President
is trying to smother without offering a replacement.
The 2017 tax law is making US debt spin out of control
, but Republicans, who once complained about skyrocketing deficits, aren’t likely to do anything about it while Trump is in control. They’ll find the gospel of balanced budgets the second a Democratic president suggests a social program — whether it’s “Medicare for All” or the Green New Deal or something more limited.
The rigidity of the system and the difficulty of changing it is an advantage meant to keep power diffuse. But the paralysis of Congress has Trump grabbing more and more power for the White House. He’s essentially been given carte blanche to ignore Congress — to build his wall, to hold up foreign aid — by a Senate where the Republican majority is afraid to criticize him.
No good answers
Amending the Constitution, last achieved two decades ago, would take such a long time and require such a level of agreement that nobody talks seriously about it. Democrats have proposed electoral reforms after their candidates lost the White House with more votes. But Republican Senate majorities will not willingly hand over power.
The House of Representatives is supposed to be the closest piece of government to voters, but the number of lawmakers, set and immovable, has exploded to more than 700,000 per member of Congress in most states. Many other countries have far more lawmakers each representing far fewer people.
Rather than add more lawmakers for a growing country
, the size of Congress has been set since 1929 and now states cut the districts to help the party in power, thus pouring concrete over partisanship. The Supreme Court blessed the practice this year
Proposals to change things — break up California
or divide Texas
— percolate but go nowhere. Some, in recent years, have suggested a new Constitutional Convention
, but that seems equally fanciful.
Government will do nothing about these problems because it is stuck on attack mode and geared, always, toward the next election, which starts Monday in Iowa.