Saturday, November 23, 2019

To Impeach or Not to Impeach: What does it all mean?

 
Adam Schiff presiding over the impeachment hearings (Image: thedailywake.com)
“You are entitled to your opinion. But you are not entitled to your own facts.” 
Daniel Patrick Moynihan

Article 2, section IV of the US Constitution states that “The President, Vice President and all civil Officers of the United States, shall be removed from Office on Impeachment for, and Conviction of, Treason, Bribery, or other high Crimes and Misdemeanors.”

It is worth clarifying the process and implications of impeachment before we dive into a discussion of the current proceedings. For starters, if a President is impeached it does not mean that he or she has to vacate the office. Bill Clinton was impeached and served out his full term. Removal from office is a separate process that requires a trial in the Senate. It is presided over by the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, with Senators serving as jurors.

In the House, Democrats currently hold 235 seats and need 218 votes to reach the majority required to proceed with articles of impeachment against President Trump. If the House proceeds to impeach, the Senate will conduct a trial and vote on whether to remove the President from office. Given that Democrats do not hold a majority in the Senate, they would need twenty Republicans and two independent senators to join them to remove Mr. Trump from office.

Additionally, removal from office does not bar Mr. Trump from running again in 2020. The Senate would need a further vote under Article I, Section 3 of the constitution to determine if the offence is severe enough to prevent the President from ever holding public office again.

Now let’s get to the matter of the impeachment itself. Beyond bribery and treason, which are clear cut, I believe the founders purposely left the words “high crimes and misdemeanors” vague so as to ensure that this mechanism would not be used frivolously or in a partisan manner. This is why removal from office requires a detailed investigation by the House and then a further trial in the Senate, with a super majority needed to remove a President from office. It is rare for one party to hold the necessary seats in both chambers at the same time; thus it requires an offence so egregious that it brings unity across party lines to remove a democratically elected official from the highest office in the country.

Another point worth noting is that impeachment is not a legal process. While similar terminology is used, this is a political process. There is no burden to prove that the President broke laws in the same way you would need to in a courtroom. Impeachment is driven by the legislature deeming that the actions of the President constitute an egregious abuse of power.

Given that only two Presidents have been impeached, the first in 1868, and none ever removed from office there is little by way of a roadmap for this process. Nixon resigned before Congress could vote to impeach him. Interestingly, in the case of Bill Clinton the House appointed a special prosecutor to investigate his crimes and did not conduct public hearings. The vote by the House judiciary committee to move forward with a full impeachment inquiry against President Clinton was along party lines with every Democrat opposing it.

The special prosecutor’s investigation into President Clinton dragged on for four years, by the end of it public opinion turned in the favour of the President even though there was evidence that he had lied under oath and obstructed justice. This is why President Clinton was acquitted by the Senate with ten and five Republican Senator's, respectively, joining every Democrat to acquit him on each of the charges. At the time polls showed that the majority of the country was against removing the President from office with 57% approving the Senate's decision to keep him in office and two thirds stating that the contentious impeachment process had been harmful for the country.

Of course, we live in very different times from when President Clinton was impeached and President Nixon resigned. In 2019, the country is probably about as divided as it was leading up to the civil war, and credibility among lawmakers is in short supply on both sides of the aisle. Trust in government and in public officials is at its lowest ebb since reaching a peak in the 1970’s.

On one side you have Republicans who seem to have not only abandoned their most cherished Conservative philosophies of small government, but also no longer seem to believe that the person holding the highest office in the land should be honest, decent or act with decorum. Republicans like Paul Ryan, John McCain and Jeff Flake, who were willing to stand up to the President and hold him accountable in private and when necessary in public, have either resigned or are no longer living. Even lawmakers like Senator Graham who openly lambasted candidate Trump during the primaries have turned into allies. So what accounts for this loyalty? If you look at Trump’s record he has delivered on issues that align with their political interests, from corporate tax cuts and dismantling regulations to appointing conservative justices, including two to the Supreme Court. With the Presidents’ base holding firm and in the absence of a smoking gun, they are making a political calculation to support the President and will continue to do so until public opinion overwhelmingly swings against him.

On the other side you have Democrats who have been publicly calling for the President's head since his shock victory in 2016. They have spent the best part of three years investigating every aspect of the President’s public and private life, from scrutinising his charities and foreign business interests to trying to expose his tax returns. First they were hopeful that the trial of Paul Manafort would sink Mr. Trump. Then they proclaimed that Michael Cohen’s testimony moves the Needle' to Trump WH”. When nothing worked they put their hopes in the Mueller report landing the final blow and swaying public opinion in favour of impeachment. Adam Schiff, Chairman of the House Intel Committee, leading the investigations into the President publicly stated at the time that there was "ample evidence" of collusion in plain sight, "and that is true." The very real danger for Democrats is that because they have been crying wolf for so long, their case for impeachment, even if it is a strong one, will be viewed as nothing more than partisan overreach, or worse a move to placate an angry and frustrated base ahead of a crucial election.

This is the reason Speaker Pelosi waited so long to officially move forward with an impeachment inquiry even though a majority of Democrats had been calling for it for over a year. The Ukraine whistleblower story led to the first marked shift in public opinion, with a slim overall majority (52%) supporting an impeachment inquiry. This shift was entirely due to Independents. The lessons of dragging out an impeachment investigation also weigh on Speaker Pelosi because it allowed President Clinton to leave office with a 65% approval rating, the second highest of any President after FDR. This is the reason she urged Democrats to move from closed door to public hearings and has vowed publicly not let the impeachment circus drag on too far into next year.

The other issue that Speaker Pelosi astutely understands is that nobody, including Trump supporters, denies that the President routinely lies, demeans people, behaves erratically and possesses none of the qualities of a role model. In fact, 70% of Americans agree that President Trump’s request to a foreign leader to investigate his political rival was wrong. There is no debate on this fact. However, not everyone agrees that this is reason enough to tear an already divided and polarised country further apart, and many believe this is why we have elections. If we look at support for impeachment and removal, beyond Independents it breaks down along party lines with 84.6 percent Democrats supporting it and 91.7 percent of Republicans opposing it. These numbers have held steady for the last year.

Finally, what makes the Democrat's case harder to make is that there is no smoking gun, like a stained blue dress or a conspiracy to destroy secret White House tapes. At the end of the first two weeks of hearings not one witness testified that Trump himself directly ordered them to make a quid pro quo explicit to the Ukrainians. In fact, if one thing has come to light during the public hearings, it is that President Trump made little attempt at subterfuge. Instead he openly made it clear to his ambassadors, diplomats and senior advisors that he wanted to press Ukraine to open an investigation into the Bidens, and in the end the military aid was released without any such commitment. When there is subterfuge, chicanery or evidence of a cover-up, it becomes easier to make the case for a conspiracy and point at wrongdoing, but in the absence of this, the whole thing could be painted as more clumsy than criminal.

This is why we saw Speaker Pelosi use the word bribery for the first time after the initial round of public hearings. Speaker Pelosi is aware that having witnesses simply corroborate facts will not be sufficient to sway people since the majority already agrees that the President’s actions were wrong but not on whether it rises to the level of impeaching and removing the President from office. Public opinion is deeply entrenched along partisan lines and will not be swayed easily. Ultimately, the severity and punishment for the President’s “high crimes and misdemeanors” will boil down to the strength of the argument made by Democrats or the defense put up by Republicans. The key for both sides is to make their case and convince Independents.

Democrats will need to offer compelling new evidence while trying to ensure that this process does not in the end help the President, by painting him as a victim of legislative overreach, and allow him to win a second-term.

 

Monday, September 30, 2019

Why I disagree with Howard Schultz’s Decision Not To Run in 2020

 
Former Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz speaking at an event. (Image: John Hanna/AP)
"When nothing is sure, everything is possible." 
Margaret Atwood 

I have always admired and respected Howard Schultz, the former CEO of Starbucks, for the way in which he built a great global company. One that espouses purpose and giving back as things that are not just words in some corporate manifesto, but in tangible ways that impact lives of employees and people within the communities they serve. Starbucks under his leadership has never just talked the talk. 

So I was excited when he announced that he was exploring running as an independent candidate for President United Sates of America. I have written why I believe that an independent candidate running in 2020 is not just a good idea to help re-invigorate liberalism but also necessary to save our democracy from extremists on both sides who currently dominate and drive the conversation. I believe it is necessary to awaken the silent majority. 

So I was saddened to get his email explaining his decision to give up, even before he started this important fight. I understand that in the interim Mr. Schultz suffered a serious back injury and had to undergo multiple surgeries which have prevented him from travelling, and limited his outreach, but he does not cite the injury as the reason for not moving forward.

On the contrary, throughout his email he talks about the reasons an independent candidate should be running. He talks about the fact that we currently have a situation where Democrats and Republicans have consistently put party over country, perpetuated divisiveness and gridlock, failed to solve big problems and the “American people are more united than our leaders, and we deserve better.” 

A CBS news poll finds that by margins of more than two to one, Democrats are looking for someone who will unite the country, rather than push for more liberal policies. This 70% of democratic voters is a whopping majority, and not a small number. The same poll found that, contrary to the angry voices who dominate social media, eighty-two percent of democratic voters want someone “who expresses a hopeful tone about the potential of the country” to counter Trump’s vitriol and divisiveness, not someone who will offer more of the same but on the left. Further, it finds that in early primary states, “a notable two-thirds said they want a nominee who would work with Republicans to get things done once in office.” 

There is much data that shows that Mr. Schultz is correct about the fact that our country is more united than the hopelessly divided picture that is painted in the mainstream media, through the narrow prism of social media and by divisive politicians in both parties. 

Consider that even on the most polarising issues, there is overwhelming consensus on both sides of the aisle when it comes to voters. A Yale University study that has been tracking beliefs about climate changes for the last five years finds that 73% of Americans believe that global warming is real, 69% are worried about it and 62% believe it is being caused by human activity.

Another Quinnipiac University poll found that a majority of respondents (66%) support stricter gun laws and 97% support universal background checks. Further, 83% agree with a mandatory waiting period before someone is able to purchase a firearm and 67% support an all-out assault weapons ban. This commanding majority also agrees that it is too easy to buy a gun (67%) and three-quarters believe that “Congress needs to do more to reduce gun violence.” 

There is already common ground on which practical and sensible solutions can be built, even on the most divisive and polarising issues. Unfortunately common sense and unity do not make for stories that drive great ratings, clicks or create drama in a field of twenty-plus candidates. 

More in Common, a nonprofit that reaches across political divides, has found that even though we hold dissimilar views on numerous issues, more than three in four Americans believe that “our differences aren’t so great that we can’t work together.”  

They have also found clear evidence of an "exhausted majority” that Mr. Schultz refers to in his email. This majority is sick and tired of the political polarisation and constant focus on our divisions versus on the values that unite us. Their report states that people share a deep sense of gratitude that they are citizens of the United States. They want to move past our differences.”

Amanda Ripley writes in the Washington post about research showing that the ideal candidate that voters are looking for is not a person with all the answers and policy solutions. The fact is that most people are pragmatic and understand that no one person, or party, can provide all the answers. Also, they don’t trust politicians to follow through on their promises. 

They are looking for a candidate who understands their realities. “When people feel understood, they become more willing to hear different ideas”. The research finds that people are more willing to listen to a person who can recognize and acknowledge their struggles, even if they disagree with a candidate’s specific policies and solution.

Given this I truly believe that it will be nearly impossible for a candidate from either party to appeal to this important silent majority that has the power to break the will of the vociferous minority. At a time when Congress’s approval rating hovers in the high teens and disapproval remains steady at 79% according to the latest Gallup poll, and more than two-thirds of Americans have little or no confidence in the federal governmentwe will need someone who can break this status quo. I believe that someone needs to be an independent candidate. 

Barack Obama was such a candidate. The fact that he was an unknown and political novice made his appeal cut across partisan divides and gave people the hope that neither Senator McCain nor Senator Clinton was able to offer. Once again in 2016 voters rejected ALL the establishment candidates and chose another outsider, albeit of a very different stripe. 

Another reason it is important for an independent candidate to run is because the presidential primary process is flawed. By only allowing registered voters to participate, versus the entire electorate, it allows a small, vociferous minority in the base to dictate terms and drive the outcomes. Historically, voter participation in the primaries hovers at less than 20%. 

Hamstrung by this reality, candidates are unable to speak to the broader electorate, or posit solutions that break with their party’s positions on issues. They must pander to their extremes. We saw the disastrous results of this strategy unfold in the 2016 Republican primaries that enabled Donald Trump to lead a hostile takeover of the party of Abraham Lincoln. I fear the same will thing will happen to Democrats by time the field of twenty candidates is winnowed. 

Irrespective, the damage with the silent majority is already done because candidates cannot unsay and undo the partisan, polarising and extreme views and positions they have taken during the primaries and suddenly transform into people who can cut across political divides. Mr. Schultz identifies this danger and says he is worried about “far-left policy ideas being advanced by several Democratic candidates” and rightly believes it will serve to further alienate voters.”  

The irony is that he closes by saying that the silent majority has been drowned out by vitriolic extremes and “has largely tuned out of political life online and in the news, leaving the extreme voices to define the debate.” Yet, rather than offer a reason for this majority re-engage and lead the charge in taking back control of our national debate, he chooses to step out of the arena and makes a plea for us to find “the best of ourselves on the national stage, and to the world”. 

I understand that running for President is not an easy decision and it is a deeply personal one that will involve dragging oneself and one’s family though the mud of modern day media. So I do not think less of him or judge Mr. Shultz for choosing not to proceed.

Given where we are today in our one-sided political debates and with the dearth of leadership in both parties, I believe the risk of an independent candidate running at the cost of re-electing President Trump, is one worth taking.

As long as private citizens like Mr. Schultz and Mr. Bloomberg who have the means to finance national campaigns, unlike the rest of us, choose not to be the “man (or woman) who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood” we will not be able to break the two-party stranglehold on our democracy.