As we observe the impeachment vote taking place on the floor of the House of Representatives, it is worth noting that Tuesday’s public hearing before the House Rules Committee was the best public impeachment hearing yet. There is one reason why. Congressman Jamie Raskin—a brilliant constitutional lawyer who is as sharp as any Democrat in U.S. politics—was superb in explaining the core rationale for impeachment: that Trump’s assaults on the Constitution represent a clear and present danger to American democracy.
Raskin’s performance—both his message and his manner of delivery—ought to be the touchstone of everything that follows in this impeachment. Had this performance, rather than the more narrow and sedate demeanor of Adam Schiff, set the tone from the start, the Democrats would be in a much stronger place than they are right now in the proverbial “court of public opinion.” Indeed, I fear that Democrats have already squandered precious opportunities to broaden and extend the political exposure and indictment of Trump. I also fear that Pelosi’s narrow and rushed impeachment strategy will empower the Republican-controlled Senate to control the process moving forward, handing Trump a public relations victory. But Raskin’s testimony offered some hope that a powerful public case might yet be made.
While Raskin is a legal scholar who speaks with knowledge and precision, he also articulates, and enacts, a passionate commitment to defending constitutional democracy against its attackers. He is not a prissy and formalistic rule-follower, but a political agent who is both partisan and principled, not afraid to stand up to the situation, which is why he seems to have the respect of his Republican adversaries in a way that Schiff does not. He upholds House rules, the constitutional separation of powers, and the law. Still, he speaks like a citizen, engaging both his House colleagues and citizenry at large and might even persuade some of those as yet undecided.
At only one moment did Raskin fail fully to seize the opportunity presented by Republican questioning—when asked about Jerrold Nadler’s 1998 statement echoed this summer by Nancy Pelosi, that impeachment is too grave a matter to be partisan and therefore must be a bipartisan effort. A partisan impeachment, it was asserted, is necessarily divisive and illegitimate, and the current impeachment, it was observed, is clearly partisan.
Raskin’s answer was clever. He admitted that Americans have been suffering from partisanship and rancor for three years, but rightly noted that the source of this rancor is not the Democrats but Trump himself. And, he went on, for precisely this reason, the current situation we face is much more serious than Clinton’s lies about Monica Lewinsky in 1998, and demands impeachment.
The rejoinder was powerful. The rejoinder was powerful. Unfortunately, Raskin missed the chance to deliver the dagger by throwing partisanship in the face of the Republicans, and by forcefully asserting that the reason no Republicans are supporting impeachment is simply their cravenness, a cravenness that is so serious that it has even led long-important Republicans to distance themselves from the party, or even leave it. These Republicans constitute a significant bloc of impeachment supporters even if they are alienated from their party and have no voice in Congress.
Congressional Republicans disingenuously pretend that this bloc does not exist, refusing to acknowledge the extent to which their party has become thoroughly Trumpified. It is unfortunate that Democrats have not sought to make this a major talking point. For the public at large needs to understand the extent to which McCarthy and McConnell and Jordan and Graham represent a hyper-partisan sect more than they do a party.
The Trumpists claim that impeachment is the handiwork of the “radical left” that has taken over the Democratic party. The notion that Pelosi and Schiff are members of the “radical left” is laughable. But equally absurd is the notion that it is only Democrats who support impeachment.
Exhibit A appeared in Tuesday’s New York Times: a piece co-authored by George Conway III, Steve Schmidt, John Weaver, and Rick Wilson, entitled “We Are Republicans and We Want Trump Impeached: The president and his enablers have replaced conservatism with an empty faith led by a bogus prophet.”
But there is so much more.
Conway, Charles Fried, Paul Rosenzweig, and several other prominent Republicans, many leaders of the conservative Federalist Society, have formed a group called Checks and Balances dedicated to defending the rule of law, condemning the Trump administration’s abuses of power, and refuting the claims of Trump and Barr that the president is beyond the law.
Bill Kristol, Linda Chavez, and Christine Todd Whitman, along with others who served in the Reagan and the Bush I and Bush II administrations, have formed Defending Democracy Together, a group of conservative Republicans opposing Trump and running ads in support of his impeachment.
Recently-retired Republican Senator Jeff Flake declared in the Washington Post on September 30: “Fellow Republicans, there is still time to save your souls.” He also stated publicly that if a Senate impeachment vote were private, over 30 Republican Senators would vote for impeachment.
Two former Republican Senators, William Cohen, and Slade Gorton have publicly supported impeachment. John Kasich, former Republican Governor of Ohio, also supports impeachment. Republican Tom Ridge, former Governor of Pennsylvania and the first Homeland Security secretary under George W. Bush, has described Trump’s conduct toward Ukraine as an “abuse of power;” former Republican Senator Chuck Hagel has criticized what he has described as “obstruction of justice”; and Colin Powell has publicly chastised House Republicans for their abasement before Trump in the face of the charges against him.
Meanwhile, two former Republican office-holders have not simply supported Trump’s impeachment, but have declared as candidates to replace him as the Republican presidential nominee in 2020: Bill Weld, Republican former Governor of Massachusetts, and former conservative Republican Congressman Joe Walsh.
At the same time, a wide range of Republicans or former-Republicans, many now ensconced as commentators on CNN or MSNBC, have strongly and publicly supported the removal of Trump, including former Republican Congressmen Joe Scarborough and David Jolly; Republican operatives such as Steve Schmidt, Rick Wilson, Nicole Wallace, David Frum, Peter Wehner, Michael Gerson, and Richard Painter, who was Bush II’s chief ethics counselor; and journalists like Jennifer Rubin, George Will, and Max Boot.
All of these Republican dissenters, many of whom were conservative Republicans in good standing until Trump won the Republican nomination, stand as visible refutations of the accusation that impeachment is a mere expression of Democratic partisanship.
This will not stop Republican leadership from blindly supporting Trump or from echoing Trump’s angry assertion that to be his critic is by definition to be a “radical” and a Democrat. We have already seen these Republicans silently assent while Trump first condemned James Comey, a lifelong Republican until 2016, who had donated to the presidential campaigns of John McCain and Mitt Romney—as a Democrat and then referred to the entire Mueller investigative team as Democrats. They conveniently ignored that Mueller, a registered Republican, first appointed Director of the FBI under George W. Bush, was appointed as Special Counsel by Trump’s own Justice Department.
But properly focused attention to this substantial bloc of Republican supporters of impeachment might play a role in generating greater public support for the impeachment process and for the removal of Trump, whether by impeachment or by electoral defeat next November.
As Jamie Raskin clearly explained on Tuesday, Trump poses a clear and present danger to democracy itself. The danger is indeed so present, and so clear that it has thrown long-standing Republicans into opposition. For they recognize that it is not the Democratic party, but the Republican party, that has become not simply hyper-partisan but sectarian and even cultish. The task before is to help the American public at large to see this. Whether the impeachment process moving forward can do this remains to be seen.
Jeffrey Isaac is James H. Rudy Professor of Political Science at Indiana University, Bloomington.