The most profound attacks on Donald Trump are that his presidency is illegitimate and that he wants to destroy our constitutional structure. The Democrats have leveled those accusations for four years, accompanied by charges he is a wannabe dictator, elected thanks to his good buddy, Vladimir Putin.
These frenzied charges, we now know, were invented and paid for by Hillary Clinton’s campaign, and then funneled to the U.S. government through the FBI, Department of Justice, and State Department. Meanwhile, the CIA and then the FBI were busy spying on the Trump campaign (and, later, in the FBI’s case, on the Trump presidency), trying to find “collusion” with Russia. Their relentless effort led to the appointment of Special Counsel Robert Mueller, whose partisan team knew almost immediately there was no proof of these damning allegations. They should have told the public immediately.
Instead, they spent the next two years trying -- and failing -- to catch President Trump on a “process” crime of obstructing justice, without any underlying crime to investigate. They were pursuing a person, not a crime, violating our most basic idea of legitimate law enforcement. Trump actually cooperated fully with the collusion investigation, providing millions of otherwise-privileged documents, but he didn’t bite on a personal interview designed to catch him in a purported false statement. (His promise to cooperate fully with Mueller’s collusion investigation was based on the special counsel’s explicit promise to complete the investigation quickly. Mueller’s team reneged on that assurance after they received all the White House documents and testimony they sought.)
Why bother trying to lure the president into a false-statement trap if you can’t indict him? Simple: because Mueller’s team, effectively led by his zealous deputy, Andrew Weissmann, wanted to help House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, so she could impeach the president.
That effort failed because the special prosecutor’s office didn’t come up with convincing evidence. The investigation by Pelosi acolyte Adam Schiff also failed. As chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, Schiff had already elicited testimony, under oath, from Obama administration officials, all of whom said there was no evidence of Trump-Russia collusion. He kept that testimony secret for two years so the public would never find out. With these failures accumulating, Schiff’s team suddenly spied another pot of gold at the end of the rainbow: alleged malfeasance by Trump regarding Ukraine.
It was fool’s gold, but it was enough for House Democrats, who voted to impeach the president on a party-line vote. The public wasn’t convinced. House Democrats never won the broad support they needed to convince senators to remove a duly-elected president. How badly did this impeachment effort fail? The Democratic National Convention, held just six months later, simply ignored the whole embarrassing episode. Even the most rabid partisans didn’t care.
These repeated attacks may not have forced Trump out of office, but they succeeded in another way: They hobbled his presidency for four years. Today, the cumulative damage makes his reelection an uphill struggle. So does the COVID pandemic and Trump’s response to it, which the public considers mediocre (or worse) and confusing. Trump’s narcissism/constant self-promotion doesn’t help, either. It repels many educated voters, especially with women.
The vitriolic conflicts surrounding Donald Trump have obscured two crucial issues, which voters ought to weigh carefully as they choose the next president. One is the difference between Trump’s impulsive, divisive personality and the policies he has actually pursued. The other is the Democrats’ threat to significantly change the structure of American government. The two issues are intertwined since Trump’s policies are, at bottom, an effort to restore America’s traditional federal structure and limit the power of unelected officials in Washington. His efforts to roll back the regulatory state also curtail the power of lobbyists and their powerful employers, since they hold the greatest influence over detailed rules and regulations, not general laws like tax rates.
Trump’s tweets and rambling public comments project strong, personalized, centralized power. That’s the essence of the “wannabe dictator” charge against him. In fact, his basic policies are quite different from that self-inflated persona. For all Trump’s braggadocio, he has tried to move the country away from Washington’s centralized control, away from control by executive branch bureaucracies (though not from the White House itself), and toward federalism and policymaking by the elected officials. No president in modern times has waged a more sustained battle against powerful entrenched interests and their phalanx of lobbyists, who rotate in and out of government.
Trump’s most important domestic policies are aimed squarely at wresting control from these special interests and their apologists in the mainstream media. To do so, Trump has tried to return policymaking to elected officials and senior Cabinet appointees and away from the lower-level bureaucrats, whose regulations dominate Americans’ everyday lives. Likewise, he has tried to wrest control of the federal courts away from judges who act like unelected legislators and return them to judges who see a more modest role for themselves: interpreting laws and the Constitution as written.
Taken together, Trump’s major initiatives are an effort to restore the traditional balance between Washington and the states, between those elected to make laws and those responsible for executing them or adjudicating disputes. Not surprisingly, these efforts have met ferocious opposition, led by liberals who established the bureaucratic behemoths in the mid-1960s, by progressives who want to expand them still further, and by interest groups that profit from these massive programs. These disputes, not Trump’s personality, are the heart of America’s modern political divide.
Joe Biden is simply the familiar face of the old guard, repeating hoary nostrums by rote. Their last ideas died decades ago. Their only answer now is to enlarge the programs and spend more money.
The new ideas come not from this nomenclatura but from the progressive and socialist left, who want to take giant strides toward centralized, regulatory government, paid for with higher taxes and more debt. They are determined to redistribute wealth on an unprecedented scale and impose vast regulatory schemes, beginning with health care and energy. They want to “reimagine” policing, jails, and immigration, without so much as deigning to explain why this wouldn’t result in letting violent criminals run loose in our cities and states, while opening the Southern border to an influx of illegal migrants (who would then receive the bounty of larger government welfare programs). Since these ideas lack broad voter support, Biden is not running on them. He is running an almost entirely on one idea: Trump is dreadful and needs to be replaced. Biden’s own prospective policies are as well hidden as the Wizard of Oz.
There are three reasons Biden and the Democrats won’t say what they will do. Despite what happened to them in 2016, they believe a purely negative campaign can win the White House. They are betting that revulsion with Trump is that high. Second, the more Biden and Kamala Harris say, the more likely they are to alienate either progressive activists or center-left independents – and they need both groups to win. Third, the media doesn’t press them for answers, so why give them? The mainstream media want Democrats to win, and they have behaved more like adjuncts of the Biden campaign than neutral reporters.
A negative campaign does not mean the Democrats won’t enact a positive agenda if they are elected. Senior Democrats on Capitol Hill have already floated ideas that would fundamentally alter both Congress and the courts -- that is, Articles I and III of the Constitution. To do that, they must not only win the presidency and both houses of Congress, they must change the Senate’s long-established rules, which allow a sufficiently large minority to stop radical legislation. If that minority is 40 votes or more, its members can “filibuster” the bill and prevent its passage. What Democrats are suggesting is they will abolish the filibuster in order to pass sweeping legislation with just 50 votes and Vice President Kamala Harris to break the tie.
Since the filibuster is a Senate rule, not a constitutional requirement, it can be changed by a simple majority as the first act of the new Senate. With the minority neutered, a Democratic Senate could move quickly to enact their party’s agenda, just as the House would. The Senate without a filibuster would resemble the House, only with longer terms.
Those who propose these changes are weighing short-term goals: the policies they want to implement. Whatever you think of those goals, the means they propose would eliminate a vital element of the Founders’ constitutional structure, which set up a Senate to slow (or stop) impetuous action and required large majorities to enact new laws. Although the Founders wanted a more energetic government than the Articles of Confederation, their new structure included multiple “veto points,” plus the Bill of Rights, all designed to prevent an overly aggressive government from trampling citizens’ liberties.
Changing the Senate rules is not the only major change being floated. Democratic leaders apparently want to add two new states to the union, Puerto Rico and the District of Columbia. The goal, obviously, is to lock in their party’s control of the Senate for years to come. Again, Democrats would need to eliminate the filibuster since all Republicans (and perhaps a few Democrats) would object.
Some Democrats also propose yet another institutional change, this one to the third branch of government. They want to expand the Supreme Court beyond its current nine members, which it has had since 1869. Thanks to Republican presidents and Republican Senates, the court now has a conservative majority. Democrats have suggested packing the court with several new, liberal justices to outvote the conservatives.
Given the scope of these proposed changes, you would think the party floating them would be forced to say whether they were really determined to blow up Articles I and III of the Constitution. In fact, they won’t say. It would be “a distraction” even to discuss it, declare Biden and Harris. The Democrats’ Senate leader won’t say, either. His coy line is that “everything is on the table.” Wink, wink. Nudge, nudge. What about Democrats running for Senate in hard-fought races in Colorado, Arizona, North Carolina, South Carolina, Michigan, Iowa, and Maine? Have they been pressed to say yea or nay on these issues? No.
The result is that the biggest issues lay hidden in the shadows as we enter the final stages of the election, the most consequential one of the modern era. The institutional changes being proposed mean we are not just voting for a president, a senator, and a representative. We could be voting on the basic structure of our central government, the role of the courts, and the relationship between Washington and the states. Yet the presidential debate said little about it. It was simply a flurry of crude interruptions, mostly by Trump, and mud-slinging by both candidates. They never engaged each other directly on the fundamental issues. That was a travesty for the country and a missed opportunity for Trump.
We are being kept in the dark as we vote on what could be monumental changes. Let’s debate those changes openly. Turn on the damned lights.