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The Implications of Donald Trump’s Impunity

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The Democratic leadership appears to have concluded that, at least under current conditions, impeaching Donald Trump would be somewhere between ineffectual and counterproductive, because there’s no chance it would remove him from office, making impeachment a purely symbolic political risk with low upside. This judgment is, I believe, correct. But as Eric Levitz says, the leadership also needs to consider what their (accurate) judgement about Republicans says about how they need to act in the future:

If there is no bipartisan consensus on upholding the rule of law, then bipartisan consensus is not an end worth pursuing. If the Republican Party can’t be trusted to even consider putting its allegiance to lawfulness above its fealty to Donald Trump, then the GOP is a cancer on the body politic. And if our Constitution has brought us to the point where a non-democratically elected president can promise “Get Out of Jail Free” cards to anyone who violates laws he does not like — without facing any serious threat of removal from office — then our Constitution is obsolete and there is no cause for treating that document, or the established norms of our institutions, with reflexive reverence.

This is not an idle point. In recent weeks, many moderate Democratic senators have argued that their party should never abolish the legislative filibuster — because the Senate’s 60-vote threshold is a well-established institution that combats political polarization by forcing lawmakers to embrace bipartisan compromise. This argument fails on its own terms: The automatic 60-vote requirement for nearly all legislation is an invention of the 21st century, and its establishment has not coincided with a golden era of bipartisan compromise, but rather of gridlock and dysfunction.

But let’s ignore that for a minute. Let’s say the legislative filibuster (as it currently exists) is an age-old institution. Let’s say it effectively requires all major legislation to have some measure of bipartisan buy-in. If our established institutions have proved incapable of disciplining a president who disrespects the law, why should we presume the propriety of those institutions? And if there is no bipartisan consensus against allowing Republican presidents to flout the law, then what good is bipartisan consensus? Why should Democrats be compelled to forever and always give the GOP input on making laws when the two parties do not even share a commitment to the rule of law?

Given the death of bipartisanship, Democrats absolutely do have to start playing constitutional hardball. But it should be on things that will actually allow the next Democratic government to do stuff, like eliminating the filibuster, not on purely symbolic gestures of highly dubious political value.

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