Washington • If you want to understand how fundamentally President Trump and his Republican allies have damaged our capacity for self-government, look no further than the debate over whether he should be impeached.
In a more virtuous political world, a significant number of Republicans would read Robert Mueller’s report and decide: Yes, these findings deserve thorough investigation — if only to prevent a foreign power from interfering in our elections again. Both parties would, together, push the administration to honor Congress’ right to hear from administration officials and get documents. We would already be moving forward with a comprehensive inquest.
But Republicans (with the honorable exception of Rep. Justin Amash of Michigan) are doing no such thing. So an entirely legitimate search for truth gets branded as a "partisan" exercise.
And in a functioning republic, Congress and the White House would be dealing with actual problems the country faces. Much useful work got done during the debates over the impeachments of Richard Nixon and Bill Clinton. But the Trump presidency puts problem-solving on hold, except for dealing with the artificial crises he gins up. And Republicans in the Senate have little on their agenda except railroading through Trump's judges and blocking more than 150 bills the Democratic House has sent their way. This feeds the falsehood that governing and investigating can't happen simultaneously. Of course they can.
This dysfunction leads to the Impeach Now/Impeach Later/Don't Impeach debate that is driving Democrats crazy. And there are good moral arguments on each side.
The moral argument for impeachment is compelling: If what Trump has done is not impeachable, nothing is impeachable. The evidence of potential obstruction of justice outlined in the Mueller report should be enough, but there is so much more: refusing to separate himself from conflicts of interest with his businesses; alleged campaign finance violations in connection with hush money payments; potential violations of the emoluments clause of the Constitution; lies, lies and more lies and — well, you can fill in the rest, because I don't have room here.
But the moral case on the other side, rooted in a commitment to democracy, is also persuasive: The best path for the country in the long run is for Trump to face overwhelming repudiation at the polls in November 2020. We will be so close to an election by the time impeachment works itself through that Democrats would be accused, not entirely without reason, of trying to take out of the hands of the voters a decision that is rightly theirs to make.
This argument quickly raises political questions: Wouldn't the impeachment process itself, even without a conviction in the Senate, allow the House to lay out for voters just how egregious Trump's behavior has been and thus increase the likelihood of his defeat? Wouldn't it be an unequivocal statement that the president is not above the law? Might an impeachment inquiry be the only way to guarantee that the courts force witnesses to appear and documents to be delivered?
Perhaps. But wouldn't Trump, whose only interest is self-interest, find other ways to resist, to keep the distracting circus going, and continue to win support from supine Republicans? And I don't know about you, but I have little faith in how conservative judges would rule on these matters even if an impeachment inquiry were started.
By tearing each other up over the impeachment question, Democrats only serve Trump's interests by dividing and dispiriting the very people who most want him driven from office.
Personally, I continue to prefer a glorious election night in which Americans tell the world that we are not Trumpists and Trump is not us. The best way to get there is to focus public attention not on the impeachment debate itself but on the horror of Trump's actions — and on the Republican Party's flight from problem-solving.
Thus, a modest proposal that is imperfect but may be the only practical way forward: Democrats should publicly time-limit their forbearance. Give the Trump administration a set amount of time — say, 60 days — to respond to subpoenas for witnesses and documents and end the blockade on testimony from current and former officials. Make clear that if the stonewalling continues, an impeachment inquiry will start.
In the end, there should be one overriding imperative: The Trump presidency must end, at the latest, on Jan. 20, 2021. Given the Republicans' complicity with Trump, it's a near certainty that only the voters can make this happen. All thinking about impeachment must keep this goal in mind.
E.J. Dionne is on Twitter: @EJDionne.