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Debating in the shadow of impeachment



Typical of our politics, many meaningless salvos were exchanged in politics and in punditry over whether House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) was wise or unwise to hold off on sending the articles and impeachment managers over to the other side of the Capitol.

At the least, the delay pressured some Republican senators to admit that, yes, a trial with no witnesses is not a trial at all. “Time has been our friend in all of this,” Pelosi said at a news conference Wednesday during which she named seven impeachment managers. With new information emerging about Rudy Giuliani’s unseemly efforts to undermine our own country’s ambassador to Ukraine, it was hard to deny her claim.

But a nation that made Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server front-page news for years is so numb to Trump’s extravagant abuses of power that everything he does just rolls by as if we were watching a movie about another country with a dysfunctional political system and a corrupt, madcap leader. In a rambling campaign speech Tuesday night in Milwaukee, Trump elevated our discourse by describing Pelosi’s district in San Francisco as “filthy, dirty.”

The heartbreak for democracy here is that Republicans, who would have held years of hearings if President Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton had been accused of watching Netflix on government computers, cover their eyes and ears when it comes to very nearly everything Trump does. It’s what we expect from authoritarian political systems in which the ruling party does whatever is necessary to maintain power — including, by the way, packing the courts. It’s not what we thought could happen here.

All of which gave an anticlimactic quality to the Democrats’ Des Moines debate. Everyone said the appropriate things about Trump’s lying and corruption. Yet it was only in Joe Biden’s closing comments that the gravity of our situation was truly brought home. “We can overcome four years of Donald Trump,” he said, “but eight years of Donald Trump will be an absolute disaster and fundamentally change this nation.”

There was nothing novel here. These words have been talismanic for Biden since the day he announced his candidacy. Yet they still ring true to enough Democrats — despite some younger voters’ impatience with the 77-year-old warhorse and some shaky debate performances — that Biden has held on to his core constituency of older voters across racial lines. It’s hard to see that anything he did Tuesday will make them reconsider, and this may be enough for him to prevail.

If any candidate shook up the race, at least a little, it was Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren. She had the forcefulness and fluency of some of her best earlier performances, although her effort to stake out philosophical terrain between Sanders and her moderate rivals required some fancy footwork. She also moved gender issues center-stage with a strong intervention on behalf of universal child care and by cleverly pointing out that, among the debaters, only she and Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar had never lost an election. This came in response to reports that Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) had told Warren in 2018 that a woman could not get elected president, which he denied even thinking.

Sanders’s consistency is astonishing. He’d be the same guy whether he debated in Des Moines or Dusseldorf.

Klobuchar was spirited in appealing to pragmatic Democrats after she got past her embarrassing difficulty in recalling the name of Democratic Kansas Gov. Laura Kelly. But to break through, she needed to score more points against Pete Buttigieg, and for Biden to do far worse than he did. The former South Bend, Ind., mayor was, as always, eloquent, but he was sidelined as Biden and Sanders had a semi-hawk/ardent-dove foreign policy exchange and Warren and Sanders dealt with who said what to whom.

This debate likely leaves Iowa’s poor caucus-goers more uncertain than ever as they decide under the cloud of a national political crisis. But it made one thing obvious: The outcome on a cold Monday night in February will hang on whether most of them are thinking about the urgency of dispatching Trump, or are pondering instead the kind of country they want to build after he is gone.

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