As the impeachment process gets underway—and grows more partisan and frenetic with every passing minute—it’s important to keep our eyes on the big picture that actually affects all Americans. For decades, the presidency has been getting more and more imperial, with Oval Office occupants openly flouting constraints on their exercise of power and Congress abdicating its role in doing anything other than spending more money and acting out of partisan interests. This process didn’t begin with President Donald Trump and it won’t end even if he is removed from office. From this libertarian’s perspective, impeachment is a distraction from the far more important—and daunting—problem of a government that costs more of our money and controls more of our lives with every passing year.
Does Trump deserve to get the hook? There’s no question that he has acted abrasively since taking office, always pushing the envelope of acceptable behavior, decorum, and policy, whether by issuing travel bans specifically (and illegally) targeting Muslims, staffing the White House with his manifestly unqualified children and their spouses, or redirecting money to build his idiotic fence against the phantom menace of Mexican hordes bum-rushing the southern border. Is any of that, or his actions regarding Ukraine, impeachable? As Gerald Ford said in 1970, an impeachable offense “is whatever a majority of the House of Representatives considers it to be at a given moment in history.” So we’ll be finding out soon enough.
But except for sheer coarseness and vulgarity, none of this is new or shocking. Barack Obama was mostly polite and more presentable to the public, but he similarly evinced nothing but contempt for restraints on his desired aims. His signature policy accomplishment, Obamacare, was built on the novel idea that the government couldn’t just regulate economic activity but could actually force individuals to buy something they didn’t want. Given such a break with tradition, it’s unsurprising that it was the only piece of major legislation in decades that was pushed through on the votes of a single party. Even then, it took the fecklessness and rewrite skills of Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts to make it constitutional. On other matters, Obama famously ruled with his “pen and phone,” issuing executive orders and actions to implement policies for which he couldn’t muster support from Congress. When it came to war and surveillance, he simply ignored constitutional limits on his whims or lied about his administration’s commitment to transparency even as he was spying on virtually all Americans.
It’s needless to say but always worth remembering that George W. Bush was not particularly different. Though Bush conjured bipartisan majorities for awful and budget-busting programs such as wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the Medicare prescription drug plan, and No Child Left Behind, his administration also implemented secret torture programs overseas and mass surveillance programs domestically, all while being “pathological about secrecy,” even to the point of urging federal agencies to slow down or deny Freedom of Information Act requests.
To such executive branch flexes we must add the brute reality that Congress has been mostly AWOL for all of the 21st century, apart from taking nakedly partisan jabs at chief executives from the other party. Democrats mostly went along (at least at first) with George W. Bush’s big-ticket, disastrous foreign and domestic policy priorities. They only cared about limiting government when their guy wasn’t sleeping at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. On the road to becoming the first female Speaker of the House after the 2006 elections, Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) promised she would oversee federal budgets with “no new deficit spending,” a pledge that lasted until she actually became Speaker of the House and pushed a budget-busting farm bill.
Republicans spent like drunken sailors and regulated the hell out of the economy when they controlled the purse strings and got to pick winners and losers in the economy. They only talk about cutting spending and limiting government when a Democrat is in charge. Back when Obama was president, GOP representatives and senators were constantly going on and on about “Article I projects” and the desperate need to revitalize the separation of powers and tame the presidency. That all ended the minute it became clear that Donald Trump had beaten Hillary Clinton.
This is the essential context for the impeachment of Donald Trump. The size, scope, and spending of the federal government won’t change regardless of his fate. Like his predecessors, he has arrogated more power to himself while also driving up deficits and diminishing trust and confidence in the ability of government to perform basic functions. All of the Democratic candidates for president have pledged to spend trillions of dollars on an ever-proliferating series of new programs such as Medicare for All, free college tuition, the Green New Deal, a universal basic income, and more.
All of that is why I’m less concerned with the fate of Donald Trump per se than I am about the persistence of an expansive federal government whose spending is suppressing growth and whose programs are typically inefficient at best and counterproductive at worst. Without addressing the bigger picture, the battle over Trump’s fate will be an exercise in futility, a partisan plot climax that will thrill one set of partisans for a while but give no relief or release to the plurality of Americans who identify as independents.