I am not a big or even a little fan of President Donald Trump. Many of his policies strike me as undesirable, some in the extreme. His background and temperament have not prepared him for the presidency. He is largely ignorant of many issues he must face. And yet, for all this, the idea of impeaching him and removing him from office, which inspires much loose chatter, makes me extraordinarily uneasy.
We Americans take enormous pride in our political system, even while we disparage and distrust our politicians. One hallmark of this veneration is the peaceful transfer of power every four years when we acknowledge and respect the outcome of the presidential election. We assume that the “people have spoken,” that the process is sufficiently honest to be accepted and that, therefore, the verdict receives widespread support, even if it isn’t to our liking.
Not for us are military coups or — with the one tragic exception — civil wars. Presidents of both parties enjoy the presumption of legitimacy. Americans respect their political system even when it doesn’t produce what many thought the country needed. We live to fight another day.
So goes the standard praise of American democracy. The trouble is that it no longer describes actual experience, assuming that it once did. Sometimes, the transfer of power is not orderly. More common, the presumption of legitimacy is absent. All presidents are supposed to have honeymoons, but the honeymoons seem to be shortening to the point that Trump’s has disappeared altogether.
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Since World War II, the textbook model has gone into eclipse. John Kennedy was assassinated. Richard Nixon faced impeachment by the House and resigned rather than be convicted by the Senate. Ronald Reagan was threatened with impeachment over his role in the Iran-contra affair. Bill Clinton was impeached but not convicted. George W. Bush’s triumph in 2000 was seen as illegitimate by many because it depended on disputed votes in Florida.
We view these episodes in isolation. After all, what does JFK’s assassination have to do with Watergate? Not much, except for the traumas inflicted on the nation. In addition, some pre-World War II presidents suffered mightily. Three were assassinated: Garfield, Lincoln and McKinley. Corruption stalked the Grant and Harding presidencies. Still, something new and disturbing is happening.
One mark of a successful democracy is the willingness of the losers to accept election results without questioning the system’s moral foundations. Their allegiance to the system — their belief in its essential fairness and desirability — exceeds their unhappiness with the immediate election results. Among both parties, this sense of self-restraint is weakening. There’s a growing tendency to want to replay elections by transforming ordinary political disagreements into impeachable offenses. This is a new norm.
We should be wary, because if the power to impeach is abused, it threatens to weaken or shatter the bipartisan loyalty that now exists toward the larger political system. To overturn the results of an election is bound to alienate most, if not all, of the voters whose winner was repudiated — and perhaps many on the other side who recognize that, under different circumstances, the same might happen to them.
This does not mean we can or should turn a blind eye toward genuine crimes (Watergate) or potential threats to the nation’s security and political independence (Russia’s tampering with our elections). But before we start reversing elections, the wrongdoing should be serious and the evidence of the president’s complicity should be obvious and overwhelming. This is a high hurdle, and it should be. It should be high enough so that the president’s own party spontaneously becomes the instrument of resolution.
With Trump and the election, we are not there yet — at least in my opinion. His shortcomings and mistakes as the leader of government and the nation’s chief policymaker remain. But using impeachment as a corrective to Trump’s unfitness to govern risks damaging the integrity of the ballot. There is a real conflict here, and barring major disclosures of election fraud or coordination with foreign entities, I don’t see how it can be resolved. All the choices are bad.
The Washington Post Writers Group