Since the early 1970s, two cycles have dominated American politics. At each turn of the cycle, the nation fractures more deeply, the political ecosystem is degraded, and bitterness and exasperation worsen.
The cycles have the quality of a blood feud. Offense is given; soon enough comes retaliation. Retaliation instills a desire for revenge, which is also taken. And so the cycle continues, worsening at every stage.
The first cycle is that of presidential impeachments; the second is that of Supreme Court nominations. Soon the two cycles may intersect.
Here’s How the Cycles Began
The presidential impeachment cycle begins in 1973 with Richard Nixon. Although Nixon had been resoundingly re-elected in 1972, the Democratic Party set out to overturn the election results. Urged on by The New York Times and the Washington Post, House Democrats initiated an impeachment inquiry. The country was still new to these things, as the last presidential impeachment had been in 1868, soon after the Civil War.
Most don’t know it, but Nixon was never formally impeached by the House. Yet a group of Republican senators, in the midst of a bad economy caused by an inflationary shock, were set to give Democrats in the Senate the votes needed for conviction.
Congressional Democrats seriously considered impeaching and removing President Ronald Reagan after his overwhelming re-election victory in 1984. The “Iran-Contra” scandal was invented for the purpose. In the end, the Democrats did not move on Reagan.
Then it was Republicans’ turn. Fast-forward to 1998. The House Republicans impeached Bill Clinton for what, with hindsight, seems utterly inadequate reasons. Although Clinton, unlike Nixon, was formally impeached, he was not convicted in his Senate trial.
To millions of Americans, the trial looked farcical. The “solemn” impeachment process was being trivialized. The country as a whole had no interest in removing a president who had won re-election and was governing to the satisfaction of most voters. Certainly not in removing him for what appeared to be light and pretextual charges.
Impeachment Instead of Getting to Work
Now it is House Democrats’ turn again. Flushed with their midterm victory in 2018, the House Democrats have consistently refused to take up the serious business of the country, such as immigration reform, trade, repairing our decaying infrastructure, the opioids epidemic, or reforms that might actually reduce gun violence. Yet many of the Democrats who won swing districts campaigned on getting things done, and said they would work with the president on certain issues.
Democrats surely fear that even a reasonable legislative compromise on any of these issues would be interpreted as a “victory” for Trump, not as the bipartisan pursuit of the welfare of the American republic. And they have done nothing to advance the policies and programs that many of their leaders ostensibly support, such as reparations for slavery.
Instead, they view their 2018 triumph as the occasion for political payback. With (again) the assistance and incitement of The New York Times and the Washington Post, whose authority has vastly diminished since the Nixon years, they are replaying the Nixon case.
The Cycle of Judicial Games-Playing
The other cycle is the judicial confirmation one. Although some of Nixon’s proposed Supreme Court justices were mowed down, we can date the start of this cycle to the defeat of Robert Bork, Reagan’s nominee for the Supreme Court, in 1987—shortly after Democrats had recovered the Senate in the 1986 midterms.
Bork was a humane, intelligent, highly qualified, and (in 1987) utterly naïve man. Democrats’ outrageous and slanderous assault on him was spearheaded by Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Joe Biden and his Senate colleague, Ted Kennedy. It succeeded. Bork’s nomination was trashed.
The Senate Democrats tried the same techniques of vilification and character assassination in 1991, in the confirmation hearings of now Justice Clarence Thomas. The Republicans were more alert this time. The effort to torpedo Thomas—another humane, intelligent, and distinguished man who was much less naïve than Bork—failed.
In 2016, the wheel turned again. Now it was Senate Republicans’ chance. President Obama nominated Judge Merrick Garland to succeed the late Justice Antonin Scalia. Based on the personal knowledge of one of us (who worked for Garland), he too was an extremely able, fair-minded, and well-qualified nominee who ought, in ordinary circumstances, to have been confirmed easily.
But Republicans’ thirst for payback for Bork and Thomas was overpowering. Garland was not rejected after a campaign of appalling vilification, but his nomination was slow-walked to death, until after Donald Trump’s election in 2016. Trump probably owes his presidency as much to his promise to appoint a judicial conservative to succeed Scalia as to anything else.
From Bork to Kavanaugh
The latest turn of the cycle was 2018, when the Senate Democrats, although a minority, attempted to sabotage the appointment of now Justice Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court. They employed tactics similar to those they had used against Thomas, although even more cynical, unconscionable, and brutal.
It did not work this time either. Once more, the nominee (again, one of us speaks from personal knowledge) was able and well-qualified: his confirmation ought to have been a cake walk, not a blood bath.
Now Democrats are talking about impeaching not only President Trump, but also Kavanaugh. Have no doubt about it: if they keep control of the House in 2020, they will do exactly that. The two cycles—impeachment and confirmation, presidency and Supreme Court—will intersect.
Sooner or later, it will be Republicans’ turn again. Consider this not altogether implausible scenario.
Elizabeth Warren is elected president in 2020. Democrats hold the House and recapture the Senate. Warren’s business-hostile program is enacted into law. The stock market crashes. The recession Democrats pray would happen in 2020 (if they prayed) happens in 2021, on Warren’s watch.
Taxes rise, along with health-care premiums. Government deficits balloon even further. The regulatory state becomes more oppressive. Something bad happens overseas—perhaps China invades Taiwan. Unemployment ticks up from the current record lows.
Enraged that their retirement portfolios have tanked, that they have lost their jobs, and that they have been humiliated and gagged for trying to express their opinions, middle class, working-class, and retired voters show up in huge numbers to hand the House, and maybe the Senate, back to Republicans. It is a replay of the 1994 and 2010 midterms.
What do the Republicans do when the new Congress assembles in January 2023? The answer is obvious. They begin the impeachment of President Warren and (why not?) her vice president. The charges do not matter, because Democrats have already debauched and degraded the impeachment process by attempting to remove Trump and Kavanaugh. The Republican speaker of the House assumes the presidency. It does not matter that Warren won it in 2020.
Cycles of Revenge
Do the American people want this cycle to continue?
Great literature is often about terrible cycles of injury and revenge like this. Think of the Oresteia of Aeschylus, the Norse sagas, the struggle between the Houses of York and Lancaster in Shakespeare’s history plays. The effects of such cycles are inevitably wasteful and destructive. Kings die, family members hurt each other, innocent people suffer, honorable people are disgraced. Do we want this to continue to happen to us?
Enough of impeachment and confirmation fevers. Enough of the frivolity and hatefulness of (this time around) the Adam Schiffs and the Chuck Schumers. What this country achingly needs in 2020 is not an impeachment, but an election.
Republicans were set to win the 1998 midterms before the Clinton impeachment process. The polls showed them gaining seats. After the Clinton impeachment, Republicans lost seats in the House—the first time a party that didn’t control the White House lost seats in the midterms since 1934. The voters were punishing them for wasting time on Clinton.
We’ve never had an impeachment in the first term of a presidency, going into an election year. Maybe the cycle will be broken if the voters send a clear message.