In the United States, by contrast, dumping a president involves a pseudo-judicial impeachment process. The question is not, “Would it be better if the vice president took over?” Instead, it’s, “Is the president guilty of all that ‘high felony’ means?” »
This partly reflects our political institutions. The United States does not have a parliamentary system; the president is directly elected by the citizens, not chosen by party members. It would be difficult, to say the least, to change the rules and organization of the federal system of government.
But much of the difference is based on a foundation of standards that can be changed more easily. It is common to describe figures such as Liz Cheney and Adam Kitzinger, the two Republicans on the House committee on Jan. 6, as “brave” for their willingness to challenge former President Donald Trump. It is said that they put principle before party.
In the UK, by contrast, there was no particular courage when members of Johnson’s cabinet resigned. And above all, they absolutely did not set aside partisan considerations by urging him to resign. He had become politically toxic, an embarrassment to the Conservative Party. By jostling him, his conservative colleagues hoped to improve their party’s performance in the next election and breathe new life into their policies.
The current prime ministers of Sweden and Finland both came to power simply because their predecessors had become unpopular and the ruling left parties believed they would be better served by a fresher face.
But in the United States, there is a tradition, long before Trump, of seeing it as a partisan duty to support a tarnished leader. Perhaps the starkest example is former President Bill Clinton’s sex and perjury scandal in 1998. Clinton’s conduct was clearly unsavory — and totally irrelevant to public policy.
In another country, his party leaders reportedly told the president he was in the way and should resign. Indeed, when it first emerged that the main allegations against Clinton were true, many observers believed it would happen. Instead, Clinton rallied his cabinet behind him and the Democrats backed their man. Republicans moved to impeach — sparking a legal and constitutional fight that backfired when he was acquitted by the Senate and the GOP lost seats midterm in 1998.
More than a decade earlier, there had been a scandal involving an official crime. But in the Iran-Contra affair, it was the White House chief of staff rather than the president who suffered. Or consider the impeachment of Andrew Johnson, where the judgment of history is that it was wrong for Republicans to try to impeach a president over what was essentially a political disagreement.
More recently, Trump’s cabinet seriously considered invoking the 25th Amendment to impeach him after Jan. 6. But the usual interpretation of this provision treats the question of whether the president “is unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office” as a physician rather than political judgment, which discourages its use.
There is something fundamentally silly in all of this.
If members of cabinet or congress think it would be better for the country to impeach the president and replace him with the vice president, why should they stick to the worst option? One of the absurdities of Clinton’s impeachment is that even though it became a huge partisan showdown, the real political stakes were non-existent. Had he resigned or been removed from office, Al Gore would have pursued the same policy.
It is a myth that the textual formalisms of “crimes and misdemeanors” and “unable to perform the powers and duties of office” truly tie the hands of the political process.
If Trump had been removed from office, he could not have appealed to the Supreme Court for a review of the decision. Similarly, the British cabinet had few formal tools to effectively force Johnson to resign. The fact is that politics, not law, drove the process. The UK has an unwritten constitution, and there are non-justiciable aspects of the US Constitution that deal with branch versus branch disputes. But these decisions largely operate in the realm of standards.
And in this case, American standards are much worse. The idea that you can and should get rid of a leader whenever appropriate matches the importance of the role. The United States makes it very difficult to become president in the first place, but then expects the winner to stay there for at least four years. Instances of personal misconduct or idiosyncrasy become appropriate topics for partisan debate, and polarization leads Americans to believe that their views on abortion or taxes should be strongly correlated with condoning various scandals.
Political leadership should be seen as a high-stakes job like any other – a great privilege that comes with huge responsibilities. And when politicians get it wrong, it should be much easier to remove them from office, and much more common for fellow party members to urge them to leave voluntarily.
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This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the Editorial Board or of Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Matthew Yglesias is a columnist for Bloomberg Opinion. Co-founder and former columnist of Vox, he writes the Slow Boring blog and newsletter. He is the author, most recently, of “One Billion Americans”.
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