The Tao of impeachment: The process is the point

Not a cloud in the sky.
Not a cloud in the sky.
Image: Ephrat Livni
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Throughout yesterday’s impeachment proceedings, which lasted about 11 hours, Democrats and Republicans took starkly conflicting positions on all but one matter. Almost everyone agreed on how to characterize the occasion. It was, they said, “a sad day.”

People also called it a tragic day, a historic day, a solemn day, a disappointing day, and a regrettable day, among other formulations. “A few weeks ago, I said a dark cloud is descending on this body, and today… it is,” Republican House judiciary ranking member Doug Collins of Georgia lamented.

Doug Collins
Doug Collins
Image: House TV via Reuters

But it was, in fact, a sunny, clear, crisp, cool day in Washington, DC. The republic wasn’t crumbling. Everything was functioning. There wasn’t a cloud in the sky after days of drizzle, and all the thunder came from angry Republicans accusing Democrats of abusing their power.

It was a gloriously boring, historic day preceding what would turn out to be the third ever presidential impeachment.

“It’s not easy to make a coup boring, yet the Democrats did,” Republican Devin Nunes of Illinois angrily complained.

That it wasn’t a coup was the beauty, however. Apart from the maniacal and strangely placed exhortations about “swamp creatures” and the “genocide of the unborn” issued by some members of the right, it was a staid enough affair, mostly dull as toast.

It involved politicians droning on and on about the Constitution, policy, and that July 25 phone call when US president Donald Trump asked a foreign leader to “do us a favor” and what it all means—which is just what they are supposed to do if evidence of possible misconduct comes to light, whether they agree with the allegations or fight them.

In other words, everything is alright.

The Tao of democracy

During the debates, each side reiterated the same points they’ve already illuminated in many public hearings and reports.

Democrats say the facts are undisputed and that Trump betrayed the public. Republicans counter that the now “socialist” Democratic party (a concept that brought a smile to freshman New York Democrat Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s face) is out to get Trump, and has been since he was elected. They proclaim his innocence and decry the sham proceedings as a veritable “Schiff show,” a dig at Democrat Adam Schiff, the chair of the House Intelligence Committee who guided the 2-month impeachment investigation.

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez
Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez
Image: Reuters/Jonathan Ernst

Despite the repetition and the not-so-good-natured ribbing, the debating was wonderful. It was an elaboration on the record that was laid out for the people, by a government of the people, and who can object to that? The fact that it was happening is a victory for democracy. It’s a privilege not to be taken for granted, whatever you think of the president or hope the outcome of the impeachment will be.

Yes, it seems like a foregone conclusion that the Republican-majority Senate will not find that Trump committed impeachable offenses, just as it was clear the Democratic-majority House would vote to impeach. But as a person working in the coffee shop in the House basement said on my third visit yesterday, that doesn’t mean allegations of wrongdoing shouldn’t be addressed anyway.

He’s right. This isn’t an empty exercise because, as any Zen master or life coach will tell you, the process is the point. So, it was a great day because the wheels of government were operating. Checks and balances were happening. Let the chips fall where they may.

The framers’ brainchild

Many politicians lamented what the Constitution’s framers would think of the country’s current predicament. But it seemed to me that they might be pretty impressed by the United States, actually, if they saw the display at the House yesterday.

Their project has flourished far beyond what any of them could have imagined. It’s unlikely that founding fathers James Madison and George Mason would have foreseen a time that the halls of government would be diverse, relatively speaking, or that the speaker of the House would be a woman, that technology would be where it is, or that the country would be so influential.

Yet here we are. To a first-time observer of a live presidential impeachment, it seemed a marvelously arcane and post-modern proceeding all at once. It was a celebration of rules, order, and oratory, proof of the merit of the framers’ project and of progress made since its conception.

Stars of the show

While Nancy Pelosi, aka Madam Speaker, gets kudos for her management style—she literally occupied a backseat after her opening speech, where she chatted with the many who came to pay their respects and did paperwork, appearing confident, cool, and in charge. There were others who shone in center stage.

House speaker Nancy Pelosi
House speaker Nancy Pelosi
Image: Reuters/Jonathan Ernst

Collins had his moments, too. He was dramatic, as is his wont, alternately charming, irate, and comedic. Love him or leave him, he was undeniably a star, in part because he got to talk all the time. He rebutted every majority point and introduced each Republican speaker, controlling the clock for his side. He started by decrying the “clock and calendar” as “terrible masters of the Democrats” who were rushing to impeachment, and he stuck with this theme until late in the evening.

For a stretch, however, Collins became almost incomprehensible. Unable to contain his disdain for the Democrats’ case, he spoke quickly and cockily, jerking around clownishly. At one point he flung a piece of paper in disgust. It floated, ever so slowly, toward the face of an alarmed aide.

Collins called the accusations against Trump a “drive-by hit” and proceeded to point at Democrats, asking how they’d feel if similarly assailed. They loudly objected, telling him to direct his speech to the front of the room, as required by the rules, which he reluctantly did.

To his credit, after complaining for hours and being relentlessly partisan, Collins walked right over to Rep. Jerrold Nadler, a Democrat from New York with whom he’d been sparring, and shook his hand.

A is for “Amash stands alone”

Michigan’s newly minted Independent, Justin Amash, was a refreshing contrast to Collins. He was a study in restraint, a lone wolf howling, but not too loudly.

“I rise today in support of articles of impeachment,” he began. That he stood at the Democrats’ podium when he said it spoke volumes in and of itself.

Amash was once a young Republican luminary. Now he is an island unto himself. He renounced Trump after the Mueller report was released, and has since abandoned his party and rebranded.

Justin Amash
Justin Amash
Image: Reuters/Jonathan Ernst

Hours into the debates, Amash entered on the Democrats’ side and sat alone in a row. He studied the papers in his hand, sipping water, seeming not to want to attract too much notice. Or perhaps he was just uncomfortable among his old political foes and across from his former allies.

The Independent’s entry was surely noted by all, but the Democrats handled Amash like the rare bird he now is, radiating appreciation from a careful distance, watching intensely, but gentle and tentative.

Amash was subdued when he spoke too. He methodically addressed Republican contentions about procedural deficiencies and substantive and legal holes in the case against Trump without ever calling anyone out explicitly, except for the president.

Instead, Amash made the point that the House does have the sole power to impeach. Trump’s dealings with Ukraine and his use of public office to ask a foreign government to advance his personal interests were exactly the types of offenses that covered by the Constitution framers who envisioned the impeachment clause. He said that he was not acting as a Republican or a Democrat “but as an American who cares deeply about the Constitution.”

At this time, Amash is the best evidence out there that it’s possible to have an open mind, to read evidence and find it convincing even if politically inconvenient.

Surprise, surprise

But Democrat Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii also surprised by voting “present” and standing “for the center.” She believes that Trump violated public trust but that a partisan impeachment is problematic and too divisive.

Briefly, to the glee of reporters who’d tallied the votes in advance and expected no shocks, it seemed that one Republican did vote to impeach Trump. Michael Cloud of Texas did so erroneously, correcting his mistake quickly when news of the seeming defection reverberated through the room.

Cloud’s confusion is perhaps excusable, given the chaos. Although the hundreds of Representatives voted electronically, they also all rushed to the front waving small, old-timey paper vote cards. It seems they wanted keepsakes, physical souvenirs to help them remember the historic day—sad though they all said it was.