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There Will Be Blood

Ceaseless partisan bloodletting won’t heal the nation’s political wounds.
April 12, 2019
There Will Be Blood

I’ve written from time to time on the disturbing “Lock Her Up!” approach to political warfare that has become a permanent feature of our politics. Needless to say, it did not end with the 2016 election.

A couple months ago, two Princeton historians claimed in a USA Today op-ed that the best way to heal the nation’s political divisions would be for the House Democrats to . . . investigate the president and punish him for any wrongdoing:

The lessons [of Watergate and Ford’s pardon of Nixon] are clear: If an administration commits crimes without being held accountable, the next commander in chief feels emboldened to keep skirting the rules and violating the public trust. It should not be a total surprise that Trump, who came of age in the decades surrounding the pardon, believes that he can skirt the formal limits of power without having to fear any sort of real blowback.

Turning a blind eye to abuses of power might heal the political careers of individual partisans, but it does nothing to heal the nation. Indeed, a lack of accountability only makes the popular resentment over Washington more pronounced and the partisan divide more deeply felt.

This struck me as a rather odd approach to “healing” anything.

I thought of it again this morning, when I saw Rich Lowry’s essay in National Review, arguing that the the best way to heal the nation’s political divisions would be for the Justice Department to . . . investigate the people who investigated the president, and punish them for any wrongdoing:

The Mueller probe was a national trauma. Its boosters didn’t experience it as such, of course. They enjoyed it and played it up and hoped for the very worst. But it cast a shadow over the White House, occupied an inordinate share of the nation’s political attention, and saddled innocent people with large legal bills. . . .

We should try to find out as reliably as possible how much FBI and other officials were legitimately freaked out by some of the Russia connections of Trump associates, and how much they were acting in an amateurish panic and out of partisan malice. . . . By getting as much information out publicly about the roots of the Russia probe, Barr can let people decide for themselves.

I suppose we should all look forward to the next Democratic administration trying to heal the nation’s political divisions by investigating the Trump administration’s investigation of the Obama administration’s investigation of the Trump campaign—so much “healing,” we may even get tired of all the healing.

Transparency in government is a very good and important thing. The punishment of law breakers is a very good and important thing. A president should demand the highest ethical standards within his administration — for his administration’s own sake and for the sake of good government.

That’s why I thought the Mueller investigation was not unreasonable, and an investigation of the investigation may be reasonable too, at least to the extent that it focuses on the president’s own administration and not his political enemies.

And I don’t doubt that Lowry sees this approach as necessary to promote both transparency and the rule of law, just as Princeton’s Professors and Kruse and Zelizer surely did. And at least Lowry stops short of calling for prosecutors or congressmen to punish wrongdoers; he leaves that to the people themselves, which I think is an improvement.

But it requires a suspension of disbelief that any of this bloodletting or investigations of one’s political adversaries will actually heal anything.

To heal the nation’s political wounds would probably require something quite different: heroic efforts by statesmen and citizens to persuade their fellow partisans to restrain themselves, forgive their political opponents for perceived (or actual) wrongdoing, and then to call on the entire country, as one, to move forward.

It would require more self-restraint, less “lock them up,” and virtually no owning of the libs, the cons, or anyone else.

But the endless cycles of escalating political warfare has become such an overbearing force in our political life that it’s not clear if such restraint is impossible, or merely exceedingly difficult.

The new PBS documentary on Reconstruction has come at a perfect time.

Correction: The article incorrectly said that a recent USA Today op-ed called for action by the Justice Department. It called for action by the House Democrats. 

Adam J. White

Adam J. White is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and co-director of George Mason University’s C. Boyden Gray Center for the Study of the Administrative State.