The general-election campaign for the White House is now under way. It’s not occurring on the hustings or in candidate town meetings. It’s taking place on the Senate floor.
The voting in the 2020 presidential campaign doesn’t begin until fall. But there is little doubt that what is unfolding in the Capitol during the impeachment trial – the first one to threaten a president seeking re-election – represents twin presidential campaigns, one designed to defeat Donald Trump in his bid for a second term as President and the other designed to portray the 45th President as an innocent victim of a conspiracy of elitists, liberals, partisans and their allies in the mass media.
The Prussian military theorist Carl von Clausewitz regarded war as diplomacy conducted by other means. This week we are witnessing the employment of impeachment as presidential politics by other means.
Pugilists on both sides have been presenting polished statements asserting, respectively, the President’s guilt or his innocence. In the chamber, 100 senators sit at their wooden desks, different in size but not in structure from the desks that appeared in Grade 5 classrooms three generations ago. One of those desks was used by Henry Clay, who in the early 19th century was the apostle of compromise, a virtue unknown in our time. Another was used by Jefferson Davis, who later was the president of the Confederate States of America and thus a sentinel of disunity.
The lawmakers are listening to the two sides’ appeals, but not hearing them. They are appearing to be open to these entreaties but in reality have minds as closed as the desk surfaces they lean on.
But the audience for these speeches is not made up of the 100 lawmakers dutifully assembled in those seats. The audience is the public, which will deliver a verdict on Mr. Trump months after the Senate, as expected, delivers its not-guilty verdict to the charges the Democratic House has forwarded to the Senate for the trial now under way.
The target of the preliminary debates and of the entire proceedings was never so clear as when Representative Adam Schiff, the lead House manager in the impeachment trial, spoke of “millions of people watching this" and then, moments later, referring to documents the Democrats were seeking to acquire, asked “Don’t the American people have the right to know?"
There have been small movements, to be sure. Lawmakers agreed to split the opening procedures into three parts, one each for three consecutive days, to avoid a marathon session that would send some of the proceedings into the small hours of the morning. This was a concession by the Republicans, and a relief to the Democrats, who remember too well how one of their presidential nominees, Senator George McGovern, delivered his 1972 convention acceptance speech at 2:48 a.m. It was the greatest speech Mr. McGovern ever gave. Hardly anyone heard it.
Make no mistake: These lawmakers may be acting as jurors, but in truth they are surrogates – some for Mr. Trump, some for a Democratic nominee not yet identified. Four of those candidates are members of the Senate and thus are hostage to these proceedings, unable to campaign in the early political states of Iowa and New Hampshire.
Those running for president are required to sit in Washington, although Senator Amy Klobuchar, the Minnesota Democrat seeking the White House, did a stand-up Tuesday, as television interviews are called, during one of the recesses. Her daughter is conducting house parties in Iowa where “tuna hot dish” – a Minnesota and Iowa favourite consisting of cream-of-celery soup, tuna and noodles, baked at 400 degrees into a nearly impenetrable glop – is on the menu along with politics. Senator Bernie Sanders cancelled his appearance at the University of Northern Iowa, but Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez will stand in for him Friday at the University of Iowa. Like her fellow senators, Elizabeth Warren can plot an Iowa victory – but only from her Senate desk for now, although she plans to send Representative Ayanna Pressley to Iowa as a surrogate.
“The captains of these campaigns are off the bridge," said Dennis Goldford, a political scientist at Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa, who is regarded as a leading analyst on the state’s caucuses, now less than two weeks away. “But their absence is an implicit statement about their argument, the need to defeat Trump. It could produce a boost for the candidates who seem to Iowans to have the best chance of doing that in November.”
In Washington, the Senate repeatedly dispatched a parade of Democratic efforts to bring documents to the trial. The deposition of those amendments was never in question, with most defeated by a 53-47 vote that reflects the party divisions in the Senate. These efforts were doomed from the start, but Democrats persisted, almost certainly in the hope that the volume of their amendments, if not their certain defeat, would impress upon the voting public the recalcitrance of the Republicans and the guilt of the President.
The speeches that will be given in the next several days have the veneer of judicial probity, but in fact are setting the stage for the fall campaign. Not one mind is being changed in Washington, but that is not their purpose. These remarks are intended less to inform than to inflame – and to mobilize two hopelessly disparate bases for the contest in November, when the jury is the American people.