Presidential biographer and historian Jon Meacham has succinctly captured the essence of our democratic governmental experiment as devised by the founding fathers as placing “reason over passion.” Checks and balances, three co-equal branches of government, federalism, freedom of speech, religion and the press were carefully crafted to favor moderation and incremental decision making. As Benjamin Franklin proclaimed, we have “a Republic, if we can keep it.”
The roadmap outlined by the constitution and its numerous refinements (26 amendments) have withstood several historical tests: civil war, world wars, a cold war, economic depressions and international terrorism (both physical and cyberattacks) and our latest addition to the list, domestic terrorism.
The nation is split into two very distinct and competing realities. Facts, evidence and science have become casualties of a political divide that places a premium on whether or not conspiracy theories are allowed to infect rational thought. This coming week, the nation will find itself both in the throes of a global pandemic and the economic damage it has wrought and an impeachment trial in the U.S. Senate of Donald Trump.
Never before has the country witnessed a president who has been impeached twice and is on trial for incitement of insurrection. While the bar for conviction is steep, requiring two-thirds of senators present to vote in the affirmative, it would also include prohibiting Trump from running for president.
Newly elected President Biden is faced with both moral and political dilemmas of historic magnitude as he struggles with prioritizing short- and long-term issues facing the republic and its citizens. In a nation where confidence in leaders and the governmental institutions that dictate the rules of a civil society are being questioned, many scholars have warned that democracy itself is in danger of succumbing to autocratic rule.
A key issue facing the new president is whether pursuing an unlikely conviction of insurrection might actually strengthen Trump’s influence over the GOP.
Our system can only survive if governed by rational actors. Compromise is the oxygen that fuels our representative democracy, hence reason will be called upon to sustain a functioning system that is consistent with that envisioned by our founders and practiced over two centuries.
I cannot in good conscience pretend to know how to bridge the gap between the two competing visions of reality that permeate our schizophrenic electorate. Is it possible to hold the former president responsible for his actions while at the same time healing the nation? What is the risk of deepening the schism in our society if the vote on conviction breaks largely along party lines? These are deeply troubling questions.
There is one overarching principle that I do agree with my more conservative, generally republican, colleagues: namely, the idea that we are all personally responsible for our actions and that no person is above the law. If we abandon the notion that some among us are exempt from owning up to the consequences of their actions, will we continue down the slippery slope to anarchy?
Of course, we will need to carefully examine the evidence presented before rendering a decision on whether it rises to the level of sedition, and if it does do we run the risk of strengthening the former president’s position among the 74 million who voted for him in November?
It is the old age conundrum of whether you win the battle and lose the war. Passions are so strong on both sides of the political divide that living in a political environment as toxic as the one which exists today is unfathomable. Is there a reasonable escape?
Enter another C-word: censure. Virginia Senator Tim Kaine has offered a compromise that could represent the best outcome that we might possibly be able to secure given the constitution of the evenly split senate.
It contains a sanction that will allow Democrats to claim that responsibility for incitement actions cited in the impeachment article are recognized, does not carry the stigma of conviction and removes a burning political issue from a crowded legislative agenda. It will also free up the legislative agenda to focus on remedies to combat the pandemic and stimulate the economy. In all likelihood this is the most immediate issue that affects the greatest number of citizens, particularly those who have been adversely affected by loss of income due to the pandemic.
While I have little doubt that impeachment absent conviction will be portrayed as exoneration, I am far more interested in ensuring that Trump never assume a position of power again. Invoking Voltaire, we cannot allow perfect to be the enemy of good. Whether or not the Kaine compromise is enforceable or successful in tempering Trump’s need to continue to lead the GOP is an open question but it seems to me to be the best way to move forward and our least-worst option.