Tuesday, July 24, 2018

To End a Presidency (The Book)

Andrew Johnson was possibly the worst President in U.S. history. He was, however, wrongly impeached and accordingly rightly acquitted - with unfortunate consequences for how impeachment has been thought of ever since. Since our only other actual experience of presidential impeachment was that against Bill Clinton, an unjustified partisan power-grab by Republicans unsupported by the public, I remain dubious about impeachment's desirability in all but the most extreme of circumstances. So it was with some uncertainty that I opened To End a Presidency: the Power of Impeachment (Basic Books, 2018) by Laurence Tribe and Joshua Matz. In fact, however, few ventures into this curiosity of constitutional law's political implications are as rewarding as reading this book.

Tribe and Matz have researched the subject thoroughly and can answer almost any question a reader may have about the history and practice of impeachment - including some of the improbable instances when past presidents have provoked extremists to utter a frustrated cry for impeachment. Their work's greatest strength, however, lies in how it gets the reader beyond the commonplace preoccupation with whether this or that abuse constitutes a "high crime and misdemeanor" in the constitutional sense. Perhaps one of the wisest things the book stresses is that the constitution creates no obligation to impeach. Rather it offers impeachment to the congress as one of many congressional powers by means of which the executive power may be checked. It is undoubtedly a tribute to the wholesale abandonment by congress of so much of its role, both as a true legislature and as a check on presidential power, that impeachment can seem to some as the only actual check that is left in our supposed system of checks and balances. But of course a less spineless congress could in fact do a lot to check the power of this - or any other - problematic president. 

The authors are especially good at debunking some of the fantastical thinking that an impeachment obsession encourages and the abiding danger that accompanies using it as a weapon of partisan combat. Its continued invocation in this way serves mainly to increase, rather than decrease, the dysfunctional and morally broken character of our politics. They note "building political consensus against a tyrant requires thoughtful, nuanced engagement with his supporters. This is particularly true when an unrelenting barrage of hostility  may only increase their sense of political alienation, victimhood, and tribal loyalty."

More than anything else, intensive engagement with the arguments Tribe and Matz offer should help to tamp down impeachment obsessions in favor of a more holistic style of political engagement, which recognizes impeachment as only one of many tools in the democratic toolbox and not one to be employed too early or too often - and in the process rediscovers and re-emphasizes what re-engaged voters and revitalized institutions can actually accomplish.

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