Wednesday, June 24, 2020

Bolton, Comey, and Everyone Who Plays Cute on Biden versus Trump

by Neil H. Buchanan

I served on the law faculty of The George Washington University from 2007-19, and although I am delighted to have moved to my current position at the University of Florida Levin College of Law, my years at GW continue to exert some emotional pull.  I was thus delighted to see that 80 percent of my former colleagues signed a letter condemning GW Law alumnus William Barr for having "undermined the rule of law."  GW Law alum Kellyanne Conway is also a walking, talking repudiation of what law schools attempt to teach.

More than 20 percent of the GW law faculty is, based on my years of observation, unlikely to be big fans of the Democratic Party, which means that some of those who signed the letter were doing something that did not line up with their political priors.  I hasten to add that those signers who happen to be Democrats are hardly to be disregarded merely because they have other reasons to be repulsed by Donald Trump and to oppose Republican policies.  No matter what else one thinks about any related matters, Trump's existential threats to the rule of law should be strongly condemned by everyone.  Bravo, GW!

And this raises a broader issue, one that I have attacked from various angles over the past few years: Why do we continually see people acting as if supporting or not supporting Trump is a standard-issue political calculation?  Sure, they might say, there are some things about Trump that I dislike, but there are no perfect candidates.  I'm still deciding whether Hillary Clinton (in 2016) or Candidate's-name-here (in this year's primaries) or Joe Biden (now) has done what I require to earn my vote.

Enough!  I will use John Bolton's interview from last night's episode of "The Late Show with Stephen Colbert" to analyze the utter insanity of those who coyly claim that there is some principled basis on which they might not support Biden later this year.

After Colbert's monologue, Bolton's interview consumed the remainder of last night's show, meaning that there was no second guest or musical performance.  It was all Bolton, all the time.  And Colbert was truly on fire, nailing Bolton again and again as the guest tried to weasel his way through the interview and pump up his book sales.

As I watched, I could not help but think of James Comey's not-quite-apology tour of a few years ago, when the former FBI Director tried to explain why he had done the things that he did to hand the 2016 election to Trump.  Comey (who, it is important to remember in the George Floyd era, once stated without the benefit of evidence to "have a strong sense" that the so-called Ferguson Effect causes demoralized police to allow crime to spike) tried mightily to rationalize his actions.

Personally, I found Comey's claim that it would have been worse not to report the non-news about additional emails (because, if that had come out after the election, all hell would have broken loose) weak at best.  But what many people forget is that Comey never even addressed the role that he played earlier in 2016 when, in violation of clear Justice Department policies and norms, he operatically excoriated Clinton for supposedly awful behavior in the press conference where he announced that no charges would be filed against her.  This completely gratuitous butt-covering on Comey's part was a political gift to Trump and the Republicans, endlessly repeated for months afterward.

Comey, as I noted above, never even tried to address that matter, preferring instead to talk about how anguished he was two weeks before the election as he faced nothing but bad choices.  Similarly, Bolton's interview with Colbert (consistent with press coverage of his book) sees Bolton trying to deflect and make excuses for his own failings.  Oh, how he wishes that he could have been allowed to do the right thing!  People -- especially Democrats -- simply would not let him be the patriot that he most definitely is.

The most painful parts of this self-exculpatory nonsense are Bolton's repeated claims that it was the House Democrats' fault for "rushing" the impeachment inquiry and, even more laughably, for making it too partisan.  Recalling that some Republicans eventually forced Nixon to resign -- but note that Bolton says "Republicans" without modification, when in fact a majority of Republicans stood with Nixon to the end -- Bolton claims that Republicans in 2019 and 2020 would have been willing to be convinced if only Democrats had reached out to them to work in harmony.

Colbert pointed out that the triggering event in 1974 was the release of the White House tapes, and he asked whether Bolton's testimony could have been that trigger this time.  This is important because it makes clear that Bolton is not merely someone with an opinion on the Democrats' strategy.  Bolton could have changed the narrative, using directly relevant knowledge that only he could provide but instead kept to himself.  He himself could have made this bipartisan.

Bolton's weak response was that maybe his testimony would not have changed the outcome, which simply makes a mockery of his earlier claim that Republicans might have been open to changing their minds.  Bolton admits that the first article of impeachment was both true and rises to the level of an impeachable offense, but hey, Republicans might have stuck with Trump, so no one should blame Bolton now.

Colbert's best moment (among many) came when he directly responded to Bolton's claim that Democrats were manically focused on one supposedly too-narrow thing.  As an aside, it must be said that there is nothing about a single-issue impeachment that makes it somehow more partisan; and Bolton's criticism also ignores the certainty that Democrats would have been criticized for casting too wide a net if they had taken Bolton's after-the-fact advice.  I should make clear that I opined at the time that Democrats should "go big," precisely because I knew that they would be criticized either way, so why not flood the zone?  That, however, does not support Bolton's claim that bringing a simpler case was somehow malpractice.

In any event, after Bolton explained all of the other offenses for which Trump should have been impeached and convicted, Colbert replied that this is something like saying that we should not convict a serial killer of a single murder, because he committed so many other murders.  Bolton, who had already said that Trump was guilty as charged, simply had no answer.

This was all very entertaining in its depressing way, but I believe that the most consequential matter that emerged from the interview is Bolton's announcement that he will vote for neither Trump nor Biden.  Remember, this is a person who says that the country probably cannot survive a second Trump term (something about which Bolton is if anything understating the case), yet he cannot be bothered to support the one person who can stop Trump from winning this Fall.  (Remember: Not voting at all hurts Trump only half as much as voting for Biden does.)

Early in the interview, Bolton invokes his foreign policy experience (which I will not dignify with the word "expertise," given Bolton's single-mindedly murderous policy views) to say that some things are incommensurable, that is, that one cannot readily compare two wildly different things.  Toward the end of the show, Colbert followed up on that idea by posing a fundamental question: What is required of a patriot who knows what Bolton knows about Trump?

Bolton's response makes a hash of the incommensurablity concept.  He says, in essence, that (as he had done in 2016 with Clinton), he looks with horror at Biden's liberalism and simply cannot imagine supporting him.  Colbert pointed out that these two incommensurable things can actually be compared.  Notably, although Colbert obviously could not check this in real time, dictionary.com's definitions of incommensurable are: "1. ... having no common basis, measure, or standard of comparison," but also "2. utterly disproportionate."

If one were to take anything Bolton says seriously, the inescapable conclusion is that Trump's damage to the country is so extreme -- and of such a foundation-shaking nature -- that they cannot be compared to anything the Biden might do, because they are utterly disproportionate.  Yet Bolton answered Colbert's question by saying that he wishes that Republicans could run a true conservative rather than Trump this year.

All of which is pathetic (though unsurprising), but it does raise the broader matter that I mentioned above and that I highlighted in the title of this column: Why is anyone playing cute with the Biden-versus-Trump choice?  Who in anything close to a lucid state of mind could say that even one bad thing that Biden might do is within ten orders of magnitude of what Trump is already doing and will intensify if he stays in office?

But that is a question that needs to be addressed to everyone, not only to Bolton.  Interestingly, Bolton responded to a question from Colbert about Trump's other advisors by disparaging Treaury Secretary Steve Mnuchin as "essentially a Democrat."  In an earlier interview, Bolton said that Mnuchin's views "are all the positions of a big business Democrat, which is fine in a big business Democratic type administration."

You know what?  That is about right.  How different is Mnuchin from Clinton Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin or his minion, Barack Obama's Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner, both the spawn of Goldman Sachs?  Yes, as Trump's guy, Mnuchin pushes a Wall Street agenda that is even worse, but Bolton is not wrong that Mnuchin would not have had to do much morphing to have served President Hillary Clinton or Joe Biden.

Yet that does not stop business-friendly Democrats from saying that those of us in the progressive wing of the party have to, as Jill Biden memorably put it, "swallow a little bit" and vote for Biden.  Nor did they feel any shame in saying that they might have sat out the election if Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren had become the nominee.  Heck, some of the self-styled centrists are even now warning Biden that they might walk if he chooses Warren to be his running mate.

To a certain degree, this is posturing, mostly in an effort to extract promises from Biden when there is at least some leverage.  But come on.  As much as I applaud groups representing African-American women saying that Biden needs to earn their votes -- and if ever there were a group of people who should be able to say that they have been taken for granted for far too long, it is the Democratic Party's most reliable voters -- they cannot possibly be seriously saying that they would prefer to let Trump win because Biden, say, stops short of adopting their exact views on criminal justice reform.

Given my political views, I have spent a lifetime being told to gulp, hold my nose, or whatever is necessary to vote for nearly indefensible candidates like Bill Clinton or John Kerry.  (I use the word indefensible in a pre-Trumpian sense.)  It is thus especially rich to see people acting as if they are somehow still undecided about whether they will support Biden (or how enthusiastically); and it is actually more ridiculous for people like Bolton (and George W. Bush, and the late John McCain, and fake centrists like John Kasich) say that they cannot bring themselves to vote for someone with whom they disagree on standard-issue policy matters.

Everyone can imagine a world in which the alternative to Trump was better than the one who emerged this year.  Tough luck.  Weighing incommensurable harms mean comparing the difference between possibly-regrettable policy choices and the end of the U.S. constitutional system.  This is not a time to be cute.

3 comments:

Michael A Livingston said...

I think your mistake is assuming that you can keep making maximalist claims—Trump is a fascist, Trump is a racist, Trump is a liar—and expect that the other side will play fair. They dislike you as much as you dislike them. If you are going to be maximalist at tall times, you’d better be sure that you win.

Michael C. Dorf said...

Reasonable people can disagree about whether Trump is a fascist, given the wide range of meanings attributed to that term. The statements "Trump is a racist, Trump is a liar" are not "claims," maximalist or otherwise. They are statements of fact.

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