Thursday, November 21, 2019

This Week in Impeachment: The Most Important Republican on the House Intelligence Committee Speaks

There are nine Republicans on the House Intelligence Committee, but only three of them have received extensive media attention during the public hearing phase of the committee's impeachment inquiry. The first is Devin Nunes, the ranking member and former chairman, who has led the Republican questioning of witnesses and complaints about the process. The second is Jim Jordan, temporarily added to the committee for the hearings, who has specialized in boisterous defenses of the president. And the third is Elise Stefanik, who attracted notice for claiming that she had been "silenced" by Adam Schiff for talking out of turn last week—an incident that both Stefanik and her Democratic opponent in next year's election immediately mined for fundraising success.

Yet the most important Republican participant wasn't any of these more visible, publicity-seeking members. Rep. Will Hurd of Texas conducted himself in a soft-spoken manner during the hearings and mostly avoided making extensive comments to the media. But because Hurd is himself a former intelligence officer, represents a normally Democratic-leaning district, has been critical of Trump in the past, and is retiring from Congress next year, he was always the most plausible candidate on the Republican side to endorse the position that the president may have committed an impeachable offense—and thus to lend an element of bipartisan support to the process as it proceeds.

At the conclusion of today's hearing, however, Hurd made it clear that he will not be voting to impeach Trump. He expressed dissatisfaction with the president's handling of Ukraine, but framed it as a case of "bumbling" rather than more serious impropriety and joined in his Republican colleagues' criticisms of the Democrat-led inquiry process. If Democrats can't succeed in winning Hurd's vote, it seems likely that the entire House GOP will remain united in opposition to future articles of impeachment.

Most mainstream media coverage has portrayed the past two weeks of hearings as very damaging for Trump and vindicating for his Democratic critics. Witnesses like Bill Taylor, Alexander Vindman, Marie Yovanovitch, and Fiona Hill have been treated as highly impressive and credible figures, and the evidence that they have laid out seems, to many journalists, to be both convincing and damning. House Republicans' inability to settle on a single line of defense, and their occasional lack of interest in even questioning witnesses, were also interpreted by media observers as signals that the facts are not on the side of the president.

But public opinion on impeachment has not moved beyond a near-even split between supporters and opponents, and, as Jonathan Bernstein notes, the procedural terrain for Democrats becomes less and less friendly from this point forward. The upcoming debate over articles of impeachment will undoubtedly become a highly partisan food fight both in the House Judiciary Committee and on the floor. Any Senate trial will be organized by the Republican leadership to include an aggressive focus on Joe Biden and his son while intentionally inconveniencing several of Biden's main Democratic rivals, who as sitting senators will be forced to choose to be absent either from the proceedings or from the campaign trail.

In many ways, the Ukraine affair is shaping up to follow the same pattern as innumerable other incidents over the past several years: an explosive, even unprecedented set of events and factual disclosures that yet change few minds on either side of a solidifying partisan divide. Some critics have suggested that Democrats are making a mistake by moving so quickly toward impeachment. But it seems clear that, whatever other benefits might have been gained from a slower process, a spontaneous emergence of bipartisanship would not have been among them. If Will Hurd isn't even wavering after the past two weeks of testimony, how many Republicans would ever have jumped?

November Democratic Debate Recap: Lovefest or Snoozefest?

The Democratic debate Wednesday night was mostly devoid of sharp exchanges between candidates, with the partial exception of a few moments involving also-ran Tulsi Gabbard. To some observers, it was a pleasant and substantive affair; to others—especially reporters searching for a headline—it was a boring anticlimax to a long day dominated by the impeachment hearings in Washington.

The amicable climate was partially due to the MSNBC moderators, who mostly declined to ask questions intended to provoke conflict between specific candidates. Some corners of lefty Twitter credited this dynamic to the fact that all four moderators were women. But female moderators in previous debates have not been reluctant to set candidates against each other; a more likely explanation lies in MSNBC's own house style (personified by Rachel Maddow, the network's biggest star), which sells itself as floating cerebrally above anything that smacks of a mere made-for-TV stunt. Most candidates may also see attacks in a large field as strategically risky unless they can be directed at an easy target like Gabbard.

Biden, Warren, Sanders, and Buttigieg are all doing well enough in the polls—whether in Iowa, nationally, or both—that debate performances aren't critical for their candidacies at this stage in the race (pundits never seem to think Biden does well in these events, but it doesn't seem to be hurting him with voters), and Gabbard, Yang, and Steyer aren't serious contenders for the nomination. That leaves Harris, Booker, and Klobuchar in the position of needing some kind of breakthrough as the days tick down, and all three seemed to have prepared for Wednesday's debate with an eye toward making a memorable impression with viewers. Notably, each of them made an explicit strategic case for themselves as nominees.

The problem is that they are all, to an extent, in competition with each other to attract media and activist attention during a crucial pre-Iowa stretch in which impeachment, not the Democratic primary race, will be the chief national political story. Journalists will probably agree that they all performed well, but none of them is likely to gain the kind of post-debate bounce that Harris got over the summer but couldn't sustain thereafter. For all three, their best path to the nomination remains a better-than-expected showing in Iowa that carries into the succeeding states. But while it's still early, it's not as early as it used to be, and their hopes increasingly depend on a major stumble by one or more of the front-runners.

Tuesday, November 19, 2019

Education Is Hurting Republicans in the Suburbs: New Op-Ed in the New York Times

I have a new piece over at the New York Times today explaining how Republican leaders' recent education policies are hurting them at the polls among suburban voters as they play to a conservative base that is growing older, more rural, and less well-educated. Could Republicans reclaim the education issue and win back the suburbs? It's happened before...

Sunday, November 17, 2019

This Week in Impeachment: Why Can't Republicans Agree on What Happened with Ukraine?

According to a durable truism of American politics, Republicans find it much easier than Democrats to unite around a single political message. Not all nuggets of conventional wisdom are reliably accurate, but this one has substantial truth behind it: the collective self-definition of the Republican Party as the agent of an ideological movement makes it easier for Republicans to employ a common set of rhetorical themes, while the more coalitional Democrats are routinely speaking to multiple audiences at once. As one satirical headline from The Onion put it, "Democrats Unveil 324 Million New Slogans to Appeal to Each U.S. Resident Individually."

When it comes to the current impeachment inquiry, however, it's the Democrats who are collectively presenting a single theory of the case and the Republicans who are trying, so far unsuccessfully, to find consensus on an alternative argument. The events of this week illustrate the extent of this challenge, and the main sources from which Republican difficulties spring.

Republicans on the House Intelligence Committee came to Friday's public testimony of former ambassador Marie Yovanovitch with a clear message for the day's session: that Adam Schiff was a liar running an unfairly partisan inquiry. To this end, they took turns reading into the record previous public statements by Schiff that he would seek testimony from the whistleblower whose actions alerted Congress to the Ukraine affair. (Democrats have been abandoning these promises lately as they have found other witnesses willing to corroborate many of the claims in the whistleblower's original complaint.) Republicans also executed a procedural set piece—one of those almost-clever public stunts of which both parties are excessively fond when relegated to the minority—in which Rep. Elise Stefanik began speaking out of order, provoking Schiff to interrupt and deny her recognition; Stefanik and her colleagues then claimed that Schiff was abusing his authority in order to silence the only Republican woman on the committee.

The assumption behind this particular exercise was that Yovanovitch's testimony would not in itself be deemed particularly newsworthy by the press (she had no direct contact with the president, and her deposition in closed session had already been released), leaving partisan sparks on the committee to represent reporters' biggest takeaway from the day's proceedings. But President Trump foiled this strategy almost immediately by launching personal Twitter attacks on Yovanovitch that were soon echoed by his son Donald Trump Jr., stepping all over congressional Republicans' decision to treat her as a well-meaning but ephemeral public servant who was being misused by the real villains, the Democrats. Once Schiff read the president's words to Yovanovitch and invited her to reply, it was clear what the day's biggest media story would be. Republicans, normally reluctant to criticize Trump in public, didn't bother in this case to hide their frustration with his behavior.

Is impeachment a partisan witch hunt using career bureaucrats as dupes, or is it a deep state conspiracy in which they too are implicated? Is Ukraine a loyal ally deserving of the American military assistance that the Trump administration ultimately authorized in September, or did it treacherously intervene in the 2016 election on behalf of Hillary Clinton? Did the temporary withholding of aid have nothing whatsoever to do with Joe and Hunter Biden, or was it a proper point of leverage to force Ukraine to crack down on the kind of corruption that the Bidens supposedly personify? Were Rudy Giuliani and Gordon Sondland freelancing without Trump's knowledge or approval, or were they carrying out a plan masterminded by the president? Are the executive's constitutional powers so vast in the realm of foreign policy that no presidential act involving another nation could possibly be an impeachable offense?

It's increasingly clear that there is no common set of answers to these questions that both the White House and the congressional GOP can agree on—and stick to. Part of the problem is that Trump is willing to give up a lot of valuable factual ground as long as the normative defense of his actions remains absolute: celebrate him for committing murder and he'll thank you, but woe to the person who mildly criticizes him for jaywalking. Trump's inability to identify strategically counterproductive arguments on his own behalf has already caused him damage on the Ukraine affair. After all, the precipitating event that gave House Democrats a numerical majority supporting the pursuit of impeachment was Trump freely acknowledging to reporters that he had mentioned the Bidens in his July phone call with the Ukranian president.

Republicans' inability to settle on a single overaching defense that fits the uncontested facts of the case isn't likely to shake the loyalties of Trump supporters in the conservative media universe and the mass electorate. But it still makes a difference. Attentive elites in government and in the mainstream media are paying close attention to the impeachment process, and are sensitive to the quality of evidence and debate on both sides. So far, the prevailing view holds that Trump was, at least, up to something fishy with respect to Ukraine that justifies serious congressional examination. This judgment has noticeably colored press coverage and commentary; several journalists opined that the past week was one of the worst of Trump's entire presidency in part because of the effectiveness of the public hearings that began on Wednesday.

The media's reaction to Elise Stefanik's behavior on Friday was especially telling. Up until now, Stefanik has enjoyed a status as a bit of a press darling; as one of the few young Republican women in high-level political office and as a relative ideological moderate, she has regularly received positive coverage as the media-anointed face of a more "modern" Republican Party of the future (a role previously filled by figures like Bobby Jindal, Marco Rubio, and Nikki Haley). If the Washington community saw the Democrats' march toward impeachment as a stretch on the merits or a loser on the politics, journalists would have treated Stefanik's gamed-out attack on Schiff as a savvy maneuver or the raising of a fair procedural point, rather than as an attempted distraction by an ambitious Republican merely trying to ingratiate herself with a Trump-dominated party.

There are plenty of understandable reasons why the White House has prevented many potential witnesses from participating in the congressional investigation, and—given what we know—it may well be that Trump's political interests would not, on the whole, be served by honest testimony under oath by his subordinates. Yet one cost to this blockade policy is that there will be few witnesses in these open hearings with the motivation to mount a defense of the president built on their own authority as members of his administration and firsthand participants in the development of Ukraine policy. This unfilled space places even more weight on congressional Republicans, who must advance exculpatory arguments themselves rather than allow them to arise from the testimony of sympathetic executive branch officials. Perhaps it shouldn't be surprising, then, that the pro-Trump case so far is lacking the ideal amount of internal coherence.

Friday, November 08, 2019

This Week in Impeachment: The End of the Beginning and the Beginning of the End

This week was the quietest, politically speaking, since Nancy Pelosi's announcement on September 24 that the House of Representatives was moving toward impeachment of the president. The most notable development was Adam Schiff's disclosure on Wednesday that the House was moving from private interviews to public hearings beginning next week, scheduling American ambassador to Ukraine Bill Taylor and former ambassador Marie Yovanovitch to testify in open session.

This announcement signals that the fact-finding component of the House investigation is mostly completed. Taylor and Yovanovitch have already met with the committees leading the inquiry in closed session, and these depositions were recently released to the public. Their repeat appearances next week in the presence of reporters and television cameras will generate media publicity, but the public hearings attended by witnesses who already met with the committees are unlikely to uncover any major new facts that were not already brought to light by the skilled professional staff who led the questioning in private. There are other figures who might have further information about the Ukraine matter who are ignoring House subpoenas to testify, from John Bolton to Mick Mulvaney, but Pelosi and Schiff seem to have decided that they are unwilling to wait for the federal judiciary to sort out the validity of these refusals before proceeding.

It may seem premature for the House to already move into the next phase of the impeachment process. But despite the charged partisan conflict over impeachment, most of the factual record upon which it is based is not really in serious dispute. Democrats seem convinced that they've already seen enough to impeach the president. Republicans continue to oppose impeachment, but the defense is starting to shift under the weight of the evidence already presented from a blanket denial that there was a quid pro quo with the Ukrainian government to a position that said quid pro quo was either an acceptable and unremarkable tool of American foreign policy, or that it was possibly troubling but not an impeachment-level offense. The Washington Post reported on Thursday that some congressional Republicans may attempt to defend Trump from impeachment by acknowledging that improper acts occurred, but that they were committed by underlings without the president's direction or knowledge.

The impeachment process may not have yet reached its halfway point in terms of the congressional calendar; especially given the upcoming holiday recesses, it's tough to see how it won't spill over into 2020 if the Senate has to conduct a trial. But the broad political outlines have become clear. Except for a handful of scattered critics, Republicans remain publicly loyal to the president (even if they are frequently critical, even furious, when off the record). Democratic support for impeachment appears at least equally solid; nothing in the results of Tuesday's off-year elections will cause Democratic leaders to worry about an emerging popular backlash. The upcoming public hearings and debates will be full of partisan fireworks, but few minds are likely to change from now on unless a new bombshell revelation appears from an unexpected source. It seems that we've already reached the end of the beginning—and the beginning of the end.