After all, if Trump cared about family members using their connections to the presidency for personal enrichment, he’d have been investigating son-in-law Jared Kushner’s family for wooing Chinese investors by playing up its familial ties to the Oval Office, or investigating his own administration for attempting to divert a major global summit to one of his properties. No one can reasonably believe the president cares about corruption, unless fighting it might help him win elections.
Unfortunately, Democratic outrage against political corruption, pretextual investigations and the use of vested powers to help your party win elections sounds a little hollow. For three years, impeachment, for many Democrats, has been an effect searching for a cause. Ukraine may have fit the bill perfectly, but anything else would have done just as well.
Further complicating the efforts to nail Trump is the Democratic Party’s own history of winking at corruption and abuses of power, as long as they were committed by the right people. Most particularly, people named Clinton. After the #MeToo movement inspired an abrupt rethink of that relationship, the Clintons have rather faded from the party’s autobiography. Yet, on the Republican side, they are still haunting the current impeachment inquiry — forgotten, but not gone.
It is worth recapping just how much misbehavior the Democratic Party pretended was fine during the Clintons’ nearly two-decade reign: Hillary Clinton’s astonishing luck in the cattle-futures market; Bill Clinton’s profligate sexual misbehavior; the renting of the Lincoln Bedroom to donors; the crony pardons; the foundation that appeared to be selling access to Hillary Clinton. The Clintons, it is true, took some care to maintain plausible deniability, which Trump hardly bothers with — but then, not very plausibly, so the denials fall flat.
It’s difficult for Democrats to convincingly portray outrage over Trump’s behavior towards women when they so long maintained a decorous silence about Bill Clinton’s treatment of a White House intern. It’s difficult to complain about presidential lies if you downplayed presidential perjury — not just conveniently long ago, when Bill Clinton was president, but only a few years back, when Hillary Clinton was running on his tattered coattails. Similarly, it has proven challenging to denounce Trump’s foreign emoluments if you were unconcerned about the motives of foreign donors to the Clinton Foundation, whose donations declined noticeably as soon as her dreams of the presidency died. And, for that matter, one walks a thin tightrope investigating Trump without poking into what, exactly, Hunter Biden was getting paid for.
The left has tried, of course. And they can say that they did, eventually, rethink their commitment to the Clintons, with many openly regretting their decision to oppose impeachment. This might be a compelling rejoinder if only the rethinking and regret had come even three seconds before Trump defeated Hillary Clinton in 2016, and there was no longer any political gain to be had by defending her. Alas, they didn’t, and so what may be a belated but entirely sincere embrace of principle instead looks, to outsiders, like situational ethics.
All of which is giving Republicans just enough self-justification to keep defending the indefensible. All these norms and principles and high-flown morals were never real, the thinking goes; they’re just strategic weapons. Embracing them when they’re in the hands of our enemies is tantamount to unilateral disarmament — in an existential battle for the soul of the nation, against an opposition that has made it clear that it is not merely determined to win, but is determined to use every institution it controls to crush anyone who dissents from its agenda.
But the very experience of Democrats with the Clintons suggests the folly of that sort of “strategy.” If Republicans tacitly consent to a president asking a purportedly corrupt foreign power to investigate his opposition, they are inviting a future Democratic president to do the same, but worse. All while depriving themselves of the means to fight back.
Democrats who were happy to ignore Bill Clinton’s sexual misconduct so long as he promised to keep abortion legal now really wish they could more credibly claim a long history of caring about corruption and sexual aggression. But so will Republicans someday — and if they fear abuses of power from some future Democratic president, it would be a good idea to start rebuilding the civic infrastructure that might contain them.