What’s Holding Things In Place

With the explosion of the whistleblower story this week, I’m being asked if credible allegations that Donald Trump is extorting Ukraine to undermine Joe Biden will finally — finally — break the political logjam preventing congress from holding Trump accountable for his actions.  I do think there is a well-placed urgency around this story that distinguishes it from the scandals surrounding the 2016 election because it is happening in real time. But is that enough to change things? This may be a good time to reflect on the fundamentals shaping the politics of the moment:

  • Public opinion is bimodal. Longtime readers have heard me discuss this before and understand that everything in our politics flows from it. We are used to living in a world where most Americans agree more than they disagree on the contours of politics. In that world, the two major parties compete for votes in the center, forcing moderation and compromise. The radicalization of the right and Donald Trump’s successful takeover of the Republican Party has fractured that consensus, making it possible for Trump to govern expressly for his base at the expense of everyone else and remain (barely) politically viable. More importantly, it has made it impossible for Republicans to stray from Trump and survive the wrath of their base. No event or revelation will change this structural fact. 
  • The Republican base is small but monolithic and defiant. Republicans who oppose Trump have left or been drummed out of the party, and the number of Republican identifiers is shrinking, but those remaining are deeply invested in Trump and can be mobilized as a unit.
  • The Democratic base is large but diverse and hard to hold together. Broad coalitions are unwieldy and will disagree. Democratic congressional leaders have to balance the aggressive demands of an increasingly progressive base with the concerns of members representing districts that voted for Trump three years ago.
  • Republicans are being political and choosing power over country. Of course they know better. But the alternative to Trump is being the opposition party in a progressive realignment, so they remain silent in the wake of norm bending and lawbreaking or noisy in an endless campaign to distract. 
  • Democrats are being political by trying to protect their most vulnerable members. Of course they know better. But they worry that whipping an impeachment vote will cost them seats in traditionally conservative districts and risk their House majority, rather than taking a chance that good policy might be good politics
  • Institutional prerogatives are being subverted to partisan interests. By institutional design, congress is supposed to stand up to executive abuses. But that design didn’t account for political parties, which at this point in our history demand allegiance above all else because of that bimodal distribution of public opinion. In other words, congressional Republicans would rather taint congressional investigations as partisan to protect their power than join in a serious examination of Trump’s misdeeds, and that’s crippling the institution. 
  • Why should Democrats impeach if they can’t convict? I’ve addressed the illogic of this argument elsewhere, but Democratic leadership so far has not been moved by the opinions expressed here at Wolves and Sheep. Democrats fear empowering Trump with a partisan acquittal in the Senate, and they would prefer not to let impeachment, which does not poll well, overwhelm their case on bread-and-butter matters like health care on which they are clearly aligned with large majorities of the public. Once again, politics overwhelms principle. 
  • How can Republicans convict if he’s impeached? Republicans would divide and quite possibly destroy their party if they voted in large enough numbers to convict Trump in a senate trial, because Donald Trump is the Republican Party. Once again, politics overwhelms principle. 
  • Democrats believe the way to change the impeachment dynamic is through public exposure of the facts, but Trump won’t play along. The pattern here is well-established. Trump claims privilege over everything, even when he has to make it up. The Justice Department under William Barr serves as Trump’s personal law firm. Congressional Republicans mock oversight efforts and enable him. Democrats go to court to compel testimony and witnesses, but that takes time. Everything moves slowly, which works to the interests of Democratic leaders worried about political risk. Meanwhile, the Democratic base becomes more restless and harder to control. Trump becomes more emboldened. And there are still 14 months before the election.

What could pick the lock on a dynamic like this? Perhaps the unfolding of the Ukraine story will provide sufficient energy to accelerate the Democrat’s slow-motion march toward impeachment. Maybe it will fuel a simple high-octane narrative about treachery that will spark widespread outrage and give Democrats the public opinion cover they crave. Or maybe Democratic leaders will see that despite the accusations against him, Trump is capable of using the Ukraine story to taint their presidential frontrunner and decide that the risk of calling him to account through impeachment is less than the risk of letting him run the same play he used against Hillary with her emails. It’s even possible that Democrats will evaluate the national security implications and decide to act in spite of the political risks. If so, this could be an inflection point. But if the Ukraine story propels Democrats to use the power they have to prevent Trump from acting with impunity, it will not be because it changes the political fundamentals. Instead, the story will have to be consequential enough to overpower them.