Peter Baker's bizarre view of impeachment

Blog ››› ››› JAMISON FOSER

On Sunday, Kevin Drum noted that the New York Times Peter Baker ignored the media's role in hyping the Blagojevich scandal as a problem for Barack Obama. As Drum explained:

it's a little odd that Baker leaves out the role of the press in all this. I'll let Bob Somerby do the heavy lifting here, but I've lost count of the number of op-eds and TV talking head segments over the past week that have started out with something like this: "There's no evidence that Barack Obama was involved in Rod Blagojevich's pay-to-play scheme - in fact just the opposite - but...." After the "but," we get a couple thousand words with some take or another on why this is casting a "lengthening shadow" over Obama even though there's precisely zero evidence that he had even a tangential involvement in the whole thing.


Maybe Republicans still haven't learned their lesson from the 90s, but that's no reason the press has to follow them over a cliff once again. Cool it, folks.

In fact, Baker's whole piece was supposedly about "lesson[s] from the 90s" - but he has drawn some bizarre conclusions from the impeachment proceedings that capped the GOP's efforts to destroy Bill Clinton.

Baker writes:

But the impeachment represented the triumph of partisanship on both sides of the aisle, a partisanship that remains today. Democrats made a calculated decision to stick by a president of their party no matter his transgressions and to promote partisan division in the Congressional proceedings so they could discredit the other side. Republicans were so intent on turning out Mr. Clinton that they turned away from opportunities for a bipartisan solution.

This is deeply flawed.

First, Democrats didn't decide to "stick by" Clinton "no matter his transgressions." They decided to "stick by" Clinton despite what his transgressions actually were. In Baker's formulation, the Democrats decided to stick with Clinton no matter what he did. That isn't what happened -- unless you believe that what Clinton did was the worst thing he could possibly have done. Washington journalists like Peter Baker always seemed to believe that, but the American people have never agreed. Nor has basic common sense.

Second, Baker's assertion that the Democrats' decision was "calculated" is utterly baseless. The Democrats opposed impeachment - but so did literally hundreds of legal experts, constitutional scholars, and historians, as well as the overwhelming majority of the American people. It is nothing short of mind-blowing that Peter Baker doesn't even entertain the possibility that this wasn't a "calculated" political decision, but rather a sober and well-reasoned assessment that impeachment was simply not the correct remedy for what President Clinton did.

Third, Baker's assertion that it was the Democrats who promoted "partisan division in the Congressional proceedings" is jaw-dropping. The very existence of the impeachment hearings was itself a partisan act by Congressional Republicans - a partisan act that was inconsistent with the views of overwhelming numbers of legal and constitutional experts, the American people, and even the proclamations of then-House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who had said earlier in the year that Congress would not proceed with impeachment based only on allegations relating to Lewinsky.

House Republicans conducted the proceedings in the same heavy-handed and partisan manner that they had brought to their pumpkin-shooting pursuit of Clinton for years. It was the Republicans who decided that Ken Starr would be the only fact witness during the Judiciary hearings, for example - and who gave him two hours to deliver an opening statement, and gave Clinton lawyer David Kendall only 30 minutes to question Starr. (Eventually, committee chair Henry Hyde was generous enough to give Kendall another 30 minutes.)

Anyone who wishes to examine the facts of the House Judiciary impeachment proceedings - and the ways in which the GOP's approach differed from the committee's inquiry into Watergate in the 1970s - can find ample evidence that the committee Republicans behaved in a shockingly zealous and partisan manner. To say the Democrats were being partisan in not going along with the GOP's lunacy is simply perverse.

But you don't even need those facts in order to see the flaws in Baker's reasoning. Baker thinks the Democrats were being excessively partisan in not going along with the GOP's efforts to impeach Clinton ... and the Republicans were being excessively partisan in insisting on impeachment. According to this logic, the only way for everyone to behave appropriately would have been for the Democrats to support impeachment and the Republicans to oppose it. But that's nonsense. Impeachment was either the right thing to do or the wrong. If you think it was right, there's no reason to criticize Republicans for supporting it. If you think it was wrong, there is no reason to criticize Democrats for opposing it.

Baker's formulation is typical of beltway journalists - right and wrong and policy and truth don't matter; the only way to be admirable is to disagree with one's party. Ridiculous. (Not to mention impractical: what if the majority of congressional Democrats had supported impeachment? Would it then have been the Democrats who opposed impeachment who had behaved honorably for eschewing partisanship?)

Baker continues:

The result has been a distaste for impeachment but little appetite for consensus. Liberal Democrats agitated to impeach Mr. Bush in connection with the Iraq war, warrantless surveillance and interrogation policies, but party leaders had no interest in going down that road again. "Although there are powerful arguments that President Bush has committed high crimes and misdemeanors, there are questions about whether it is prudent to do so," said Bruce Ackerman, a Yale Law School professor.

Mr. Bush's defenders would strenuously disagree. In their minds, the very talk of impeachment over policy differences represents the real cost of the Clinton clash.

Wow. Wrong again.

For better or worse, there hasn't been any significant effort to impeach Bush. But to the extent anyone has advocated impeachment, it certainly hasn't been "over policy differences" - it has been over rampant law-breaking, constitution-trampling, and over lying in order to take the nation to war against a country that didn't attack us. Baker's framing could hardly be more Bush-friendly.

Which isn't to say he didn't try. Baker, continuing directly:

Mr. Bush, after all, campaigned for office promising to sweep out the toxic atmosphere in Washington, only to find that his disputed election had further polarized the capital and the nation. As he prepares to take leave eight years later, he calls his inability to change the political climate one of his regrets.

Yeah, poor George W. Bush - he really wanted to "sweep out the toxic atmosphere in Washington," but just wasn't able to get it done. Again, Baker's framing couldn't be more Bush-friendly if he tried; he ignores everything Bush and those acting in his name did to contribute to the toxic atmosphere in Washington.

Put it all together, and what do you have?

House Democrats were shamefully partisan for opposing the impeachment of President Clinton (though they were joined in that opposition by basically everyone in America except Congressional Republicans and Beltway journalists.)

And the polarization caused by his disputed election prevented President Bush from changing the tone in Washington - his own unbending partisanship had nothing to do with it.


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