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OPINION

Dems’ case isn’t a death blow for King Trump

By DAVID VON DREHLE | The Washington Post | Published: December 9, 2019

Like many a bright undergraduate before and after, young Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. took on an authority figure and emerged confident that he had struck a shattering blow. Proud of his college essay critiquing Plato, the future Supreme Court justice sent his paper to the most brilliant man in his father’s dazzling circle, Ralph Waldo Emerson.

The genius replied: “I have read your piece. When you strike at a king, you must kill him.”

The law professors who testified in Congress about impeachment the other day did their pedantic best to remind the nation that the president is not a king. But Emerson’s insight still applies. Striking at a president through impeachment is a serious business and should be done only with a reasonable prospect of success. It requires more — more evidence, more persuasion, more clarity, more discipline — than other less fraught, less perilous, projects.

What we have instead is an undisciplined House majority giving up on persuading the undecided public. Formerly cautious House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., has surrendered the reins on her feckless caucus and now rushes to get this doomed project over as soon as she can. Perhaps in today’s hectic news environment, America will have forgotten by Election Day that the Democrats knowingly armed themselves with a penknife for a gunfight — and won’t ask whether such a party should be trusted on its promises to reconfigure the entire society.

Let me say that I hold no brief for President Donald Trump. But I have observed his methods since he formally entered politics in 2015. He thrives not by building consensus but by creating conflicts and declaring himself the winner. Because he is literally shameless — that is, he lacks the capacity for embarrassment or contrition — nothing fazes him about the conflicts themselves, and any sort of victory will do. Whoever would strike at him politically, therefore, must take care to finish the job.

Polls show that the impeachers aren’t there yet. Support for impeachment did not grow during the House Intelligence Committee hearings; if anything, support faded. Rather than keep grinding away, using gumshoes and courts to expose more conclusive evidence, Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., has hung out the “closed” sign and dropped the blinds on his impeachment inquiry. His staff spat out a report that could have been titled, “Preaching to the Choir.”

Nor has Rep. Jerry Nadler, D-N.Y., enhanced the case against Trump. His single day of testimony from a panel of law professors cannot have changed a single American mind. Democrats already have the full support of every voter who dreams of a nation governed by the Harvard faculty.

Nadler’s seminar did produce one revealing, though depressing, moment. Speaking of a body of evidence that has convinced zero Republican senators and less than half of the American people, professor Michael Gerhardt, of the University of North Carolina, declared, “If what we’re talking about is not impeachable, nothing is impeachable.”

Nothing?

This offense that House Democrats can’t be bothered to fully investigate, can’t be troubled to thoroughly document, can’t discipline themselves to coil into a mortal blow — this is the very worst thing any president could conceivably do? No crime will ever be impeachable unless this halfhearted mess is seen through to defeat?

Gerhardt’s statement is the sort of vacuous hyperbole people fall back on to prepare themselves for a wasteful gesture. We must do this thing because really, we have no choice. The sacrifice will be rewarded in the sweet by and by. You either nod along, or you think critically; you can’t do both. And once you’ve accepted the professor’s assertion that Schiff’s committee has fully nailed down the most egregious crime any president could commit, the rest is fated. Like a soldier in the trenches of World War I, you just hope your death is made more glorious by its tragic inevitability.

What we will hear now is a great deal of tut-tutting about the spinelessness of the Republican Senate that sits in judgment on the charges. Some of it will be deserved. The Senate has stood up to Trump over certain presidential appointments and such issues as the recent declaration of support for protesters in Hong Kong. But on matters related to Trump’s appalling conduct in office, the GOP senators are quivering lapdogs.

When they reject the impeachment, though, they will do it for the same reason Democrats are pressing it: fear of their base voters. Pelosi’s long reluctance to impeach was an expression of hope that her party could build a case against Trump strong enough to rally the American public at the polls. Her decision to cave now, with public opinion uncertain, is a hopeless sop to the base. Under no pressure from a decided American majority, Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., and company will cave to their own hard core.

And Trump, having been struck at, will live to fight another day — Election Day 2020.

David Von Drehle is a Washington Post columnist. He is the author of “Rise to Greatness: Abraham Lincoln and America’s Most Perilous Year.”

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