Bryan Griffin: Good Government Needs Renewal | WAMC

Bryan Griffin: Good Government Needs Renewal

Jan 23, 2020

As the Senate hosts the President’s impeachment trial, I think back to the process that brought us here.

In early December, as the impeachment hearings were underway in the House, CNN ran an opinion piece titled Donald Trump was elected to break the elite. Of course they want to impeach him by Scott Jennings. I found it to be one of the best assessments offered of the whole impeachment affair. Jennings made a succinct and important point:

“You have to remember,” he writes, “Donald Trump wasn't elected to fit in with these people — the political, intellectual class -- to make them happy, or to become one of them. He was elected to break them. And that's apparently what he's done…”

Indeed, Trump has upended Washington in so many ways it was effectively inevitable that the establishment would throw everything they have at him to make him go away.

By “the establishment,” sure, I mean the opposing party leaders, the Democrats, but I also mean the unelected appointees and career federal government workers that can’t stand a non-politician doing things his way and not their way — or perhaps or more insidiously — those in government who see an outsider as a threat to their soft power and influence.

I think the American public is split on the underlying elements of the cause for impeachment because the case was weak. In fact, it reeked of partisanship. The vote split for impeachment fell largely down party lines. And before even that, impeachment was attempted in both 2017 and 2018 for other various reasons. There was consistent rhetoric and threat of impeachment from the very day Trump won the presidency in 2016.

There is significant debate as to whether the substantive underlying action being used for impeachment was a crime at all. The potential criminality of the phone call with Ukraine requires a subjective assessment of the President’s motives which is indeed a partisan activity.

I think the Democrats blew it, big, by using this ultimate recourse in such an obviously partisan fashion. Trump now wears the official badge of being hated by the collective left and establishment, a useful scarlet letter that will likely carry him back into the White House for a second term.

Having seen this thing all the way through, I can only reach the same conclusions that Mr. Jennings did. The impeachment was never about underlying substantive affronts to his office or the Constitution, it was about removing someone who threatened the status quo.

I believe it has everything to do with his outsider status, which is also why half of the nation so strongly supports him and what his administration stands for – a renewal of government.

Trump, a political novice, won an election to the Presidency and has since done things very much his way, whether or not they are precedented, liked, or advisable by career politicians. His base recognizes that he is shaking up and cleaning out Washington and they support him for it.

Good government needs renewal. Government should be responsive, adaptable, and never dependent on a single person or specific people. The worst types of big government – authoritarian ones – are built around an individual or group of individuals. Thus, they can act independent of or far beyond a constitution because they can frame themselves as necessary to the continued operation of the state. Our government is built on a set of sacred ideas – not a cult of personality – so those within it should be less important than the system they represent.

Our elected offices are designed with terms so that there are frequent and numerous opportunities for new candidates to seek and hold office. Politics shouldn’t be a career. The longer a specific individual holds office, the longer they have to work from the inside to enact policies or seek benefits that keep them in power. The American system is built in governmental limitations, a separation of powers, and checks and balances and these elements have lent to our unprecedented success as a country. Each of these characteristics requires a regular cycling of office holders so that the decision-making capability of any one individual over our lives is both diffuse and accountable.

Our executive branch is huge. It wasn’t designed to be quite so large, and yet as our government continues to appoint itself new roles and functions in our lives, the bureaucrats multiply exponentially. Michael Lind writing in the Wall Street Journal calls them the “managerial elite” and contends that democracy must be saved from them. The bureaucratic state has, with time, amassed regulatory and administrative rulemaking powers that affect each of us in unprecedented and ever-expanding ways. These unwritten, and thus virtually unlimited new powers must be checked with the accountability of renewal.

Trump has no allegiances to the established Washington order—he’s a controlled burn in a thick and ominous forest of bureaucrats and his house cleaning is healthy for our government. In turn, others must follow him with the same attitude and do the same thing.

It’s no surprise he will face the worst from within. It’s no surprise he was impeached by the Democrat-controlled House. I don’t think the Senate will remove him from office.  Yet his supporters see his purpose and will stick with him through it. Only three presidents have ever been impeached. I predict that Trump will be the first to be re-elected afterward.

Bryan Griffin of the London Center for Policy Research is a lawyer and author who specializes in American policy in the Middle East.

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