Saturday, February 1, 2020

The Profound Ignorance of Senators Lamar Alexander and Steve Daines

NOTE: I re-titled the blog after watching Senator Daines' recent comments on impeachment on the Senate floor. The ignorance extends to him as well, apparently.

Senator Lamar Alexander’s explanation for who should decide what to do about the president’s actions in Ukraine is absurd,  and represents fundamental ignorance about the Founders.
In an interview with Chuck Todd, Senator Alexander suggests that while he found the actions by President Trump concerning the withholding of aid to Ukraine inappropriate, the were not impeachable and—furthermore—that whether they merit removal is a judgment best left to the people. Here the link to the clip:

Let’s address the final point first: the people, and not the Senate, should decide in the forthcoming election whether the Ukraine allegations merit removal. Hogwash. 

First, the Founders were not democrats (small d) but republicans (small r). All kinds of checks and balances are put in place to insulate government institutions from the voice of the people because the Founders feared mob rule—particularly mob rule swayed by a demagogue. The Founders created the Electoral College, with voters casting votes for electors who—according to the scheme laid out in the Constitution—were supposed to exercise independent judgment when selecting the president. Furthermore, the founders expected (wrongly, it turns out) that it would be challenging for any candidate to achieve a majority of votes in the electoral college; thus, the House of Representatives would often decide who would serve as president. All of these factors point quite clearly to the notion that will of the people is really to be refined by several institutional checks and filters.

So, to Alexander’s point: No. It’s up to the Senators to decide whether the act is impeachable or not. Not the people in elections. That represents a profound ignorance of the Constitution and the situation facing the Founders.

To the second point about to what constitutes a high crime and misdemeanor, it is absolutely clear that the Founders were petrified about foreign influence in elections and the conduct of national affairs. This is why the citizenship and residency requirements exist for the presidency: To prevent a European puppet from taking the throne. I have to assume at some point Senator Alexander read President Washington’s Farewell address, which cautions the nation about entangling foreign alliances. Seeking foreign involvement in an election is precisely what President Trump did (and Alexander does not contest this point), which is precisely what the Founders thought was dangerous. And, to be plain, it is exactly the Senate that should decide these issues because they are supposed to be removed from the passions of the people given their longer terms and (at least at the Founding) their indirect election. I read the Federalist papers in college. Did they?

Then, there’s the stubborn fact (as John Adams would write) that the president broke the law: His withholding the aid in the first place was an illegal impounding (I cover this in my presidency and Congress class; Congress appropriates, and the Supreme Court has upheld this repeatedly) and he was accepting aid to assist in his reelection (breaking those silly campaign finance laws put into place after massive abuses by the Nixon campaign forces that had little to do with Watergate).

Finally, the issue of removal from office and the ability to run for president in the future. Yes, a grave action indeed—but again, given the fear of Kings and demagogues, again, this is precisely why the Senate must have this ability. The danger is a president who is supported by the majority of the people—that pesky majority tyranny that Madison warned against—who must be removed from the ballot because they can manipulate the popular will to retain office and work their will to oppress the minority. The Senate is a check on this! As Hamilton himself wrote (and Congressman Schiff quoted during the Senate trial):

When a man unprincipled in private life desperate in his fortune, bold in his temper, possessed of considerable talents, having the advantage of military habits — despotic in his ordinary demeanour — known to have scoffed in private at the principles of liberty — when such a man is seen to mount the hobby horse of popularity — to join in the cry of danger to liberty — to take every opportunity of embarrassing the General Government & bringing it under suspicion — to flatter and fall in with all the non sense of the zealots of the day — It may justly be suspected that his object is to throw things into confusion that he may ‘ride the storm and direct the whirlwind.’

On a personal note, I worked as a field staffer for Senator Alexander fresh out of college more than twenty years ago—on his presidential campaign. To say that I am disappointed in his position and behavior is a gross understatement. America deserved better from him—and the rest of the Republican caucus in the U.S. Senate. If you are upset, you know what to do. Vote like your life depends on it--because it does.