N ot all battles are fought in the belief that they will be won. Some are fought in the belief that conceding in advance would be even wo...
Not all battles are fought in the belief that they will be won. Some are fought in the belief that conceding in advance would be even worse. Democrats knew Donald Trump was unlikely to be convicted by a Republican Senate when they launched impeachment proceedings; that he would erroneously claim, as he has done, “full exoneration”; and that he would use the case to fire up his base. He may feel he is indestructible, as his lie-packed State of the Union address and Thursday’s buoyant, bizarre, rambling speech about the “evil” process suggests. He looks forward to November as the first impeached president to run for re-election.
Yet a refusal to impeach him would itself have damaged the country’s constitutional protections; and a president who knew he would never face impeachment would likely be as emboldened as the one who has faced it down. The vote to acquit was not a vindication of the president’s conduct, any more than the farce of Senate hearings – in which jurors who had sworn to be impartial refused to even hear witnesses – amounted to justice in action. It was an indictment of the Republican party.
With the honourable exception of Mitt Romney, already experiencing the inevitable retaliation, pusillanimous Republican senators bowed to power. Those who voiced reservations before voting for acquittal merely underlined their complicity. Mr Trump has captured the party that resisted him in 2016, not only because they believe he can deliver their ideological agenda, “owning liberals” and guaranteeing a conservative supreme court, but also from fear. They know Mr Trump to be both an election winner, and a man of infinite vindictiveness who will exact retribution, including by unseating those who cross him.
That threat points to the fact that the issue is not only the political elite, but also the electors who have chosen to embrace or at least endure the president’s grotesqueries, whatever the evidence presented to them. His approval rating, though still poor, has not seen seismic shifts over the process. If anything, he appears to be near his highest level of approval since entering office, though some suggest the figures may be misleading. While Democrats may continue to pursue him over Ukraine, seeking testimony in the House from John Bolton and others (and Republicans may retaliate with questions about Joe and Hunter Biden), it seems unlikely to change the game. There is ample evidence of the US president urging a foreign power to interfere with American democracy – and ample evidence that a shocking number of voters either don’t believe it or don’t care.
Tuesday’s Iowa caucuses should have offered the Democrats a chance to establish a new and compelling narrative. They backfired spectacularly. The chaos is still not fully resolved, with fresh allegations of inaccurate results surfacing. It has presented an image of division, rancour and incompetence: if the party can’t manage its own small-scale internal affairs, why entrust it with the affairs of state? There is a long way to go until November, and Iowa will probably end up as a footnote. But more concerning than the tallying of votes is the turnout, which appears to be closer to the muted enthusiasm of 2016 than the surge that propelled Barack Obama to the front of the pack in 2008 and created a sense of dynamism – or, indeed, the national surge that brought renewed hope for Democrats in the midterms two years ago.
Doubtless Mr Trump will lose the popular vote again. But the electoral system is appallingly skewed, and becoming even more so. Only a cohesive opposition has any hope of winning. And while Democrats turn inwards, with some even debating whether to back a nominee other than their preferred candidate, Republicans are ruthlessly united.
“I had always thought that our institutions would forever protect us against individual transgressors,” wrote Marie Yovanovitch, the former ambassador to Ukraine, this week, speaking not only to fellow public servants, but to citizens as a whole. “It turns out that our institutions need us as much as we need them.”
The Republican party flunked its test long ago. The Democratic party risks failing its own. But ordinary voters must now make their choice too.