It was his first victory lap; a harbinger of many to come. Donald Trump celebrated on the South Lawn of the White House as the Senate rejected witnesses at his impeachment trial this week, and a speedy end looms. The ostensible purpose for the event was the signing of the U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement, but its significance was far greater; it was huge, beyond huge.
If anyone thought impeachment would weaken the President, they were wrong. Sure, his poll numbers edged up, but that was the least of it as the reality became clear of the gift he has been given by Congressional Democrats and those on the left who pounded the table for impeachment. It is as if Nancy Pelosi grabbed him by his heel and dipped him in the River Styx. He is now bulletproof, liberated to do what he wants. ‘Absolute immunity’ will now define the stance of the executive branch toward Congressional oversight. Caging immigrants? Pandering to neo-Nazis? Killing NATO or passing the crown jewels to Putin? What are they gonna do, impeach him again?
Trump held court in the South Lawn as Senate Republicans paid their obeisance. One by one, he called out their names, they stood up and acknowledged him. If one could grovel from the fourth row, Louisiana Senator Bill Cassidy showed how it is done. When Trump called his name, he stood in a half bow of sorts and pointed to his President. Perhaps it was intended to be a broish ‘I got your back’ gesture, but to an onlooker it seemed more an effort to kiss the ring of a sovereign who remained hauntingly out of reach.
Then Trump pivoted to Texas Senator John Cornyn, who is up for reelection this year. He commented that Cornyn’s polls are “looking good. Very, very good.” But then he paused for a beat, as if to allow Cornyn and his colleagues to complete the thought, ‘and they will continue to look good as long as you toe the line.’
And then he turned to Ted Cruz. If the debasement of the U.S. Senate could be summed up in one man, it was Cruz. He was the last man standing against Trump for the Republican nomination. He provoked screams of rage at the Republican National Convention when he refused to endorse the man who had insulted his wife and literally accused his father of complicity in the murder of JFK. Today, Cruz is just one more sniveling sycophant. He has grown a beard, as if to hide his face from the world; perhaps to slink into the shadows, or perhaps to lessen the humiliation he feels each time he looks into in the mirror.
As the impeachment saga staggered toward its inevitable conclusion, the nation’s capital has been beaten down by the years of unrelenting partisan turmoil. As he presided over the trial in the Senate, Chief Justice John Roberts tried at one point to remind the combatants “that they are addressing the world’s greatest deliberative body.” But Robert’s heart was not in it; greatness emanating from our nation’s capital has become a fleeting memory and the Senate is but a shadow of what it once was. Trump thrives in that turmoil; he can have had few moments of greater joy in his life than the celebration of his vindication on the South Lawn this week, and the subjugation of the Senators arrayed before him.
The President continued scanning his gathered audience, picking out one Senator and then another. He made no bones about the fact that these were the sitting jurors in his ongoing trial — they had not yet voted to reject hearing from witnesses. Rather, he relished the power he holds over them, naming one and then the next. He joked that perhaps he was just being nice to them because wants their votes; but they all know full well that he has their votes, or whatever else he might ask. He is no longer simply Mr. President, he is not just Donald Trump, he is the Godfather of the Senate, the Godfather of the Republican Party. The only difference between Donald Trump and Don Corleone is that Donald Trump is now bulletproof.
Republicans fall in line, as the adage goes, and so they have. On the other side of the aisle, equally true to type, the Democratic Party is in utter turmoil. Perhaps things will settle down after a few primary battles fade into the rearview mirror, and the future comes into focus, but right now the animus among the contenders is growing. Once again, Bernie is rising to the top. There is nothing surprising to this, as a candidate with a solid 20% base has an inherent advantage in a multiple candidate field. He is the Donald Trump of the left, with core supporters who will not waver.
Fear of a Bernie nomination among a wide swath of Democrats — to say nothing of independents and Republicans who fear the toll that four more years of Donald Trump might exact on the nation — is reaching fever pitch. The havoc that Jeremy Corbyn has wrecked on the Labor Party in Great Britain looms large in the minds of establishment Democrats, as it is all too easy to imagine that the same could happen here. They fear, perhaps equally, either of the outcomes a Sanders nomination portends: the vision of having an octogenarian socialist in the White House or the prospect of the beating that Trump might put on Sanders in November, as Boris Johnson did on Corbyn just a few months ago.
Bernie has unsettled the Party and the field. Even if, as the conventional wisdom holds, Elizabeth Warren didn’t doom her candidacy with her weak-tea Medicare funding proposal, she surely hurt herself with her open mic complaint after the last debate. Did Bernie call her a liar on national TV? Perhaps, but what of it; imagine what is to come if she gets the nomination. Lies will be the least of it.
For his part, Pete Buttigieg let his youth show as he similarly let Bernie get under his skin. His brand has been his equable, Eagle-scout demeanor, tied to his better-angels-of-our-nature vision for the nation. This week, the angels faded a bit and an uncharacteristic edge of bitterness showed as his online fundraising appeals lashed out at Bernie’s fundraising methods and — sin of all sins — the creation of PACs supporting the Bernie campaign.
Then there was the Democratic National Committee itself. Bernie supporter Michael Moore blew a gasket this week when the DNC announced that it was changing the rules for the next primary debate, with the likely effect of allowing former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg to qualify. Speaking at a Bernie rally in Iowa, Moore screamed “The DNC will not allow Cory Booker on that stage, will not allow Julian Castro on that stage, but they’re going to allow Mike Bloomberg on the stage because he’s got a billion fucking dollars!”
Bernie, on the other hand, will not be undone by the DNC action. Rather, it will only amp up his message. Like his mirror opposite, Trump, Bernie knows a rigged system when he sees one. He surely expected that it was only a matter of time before the DNC circled the wagons, and the slings and arrows were unleashed from the rest of the field.
To a degree that seems to elude Warren and Buttigieg of late, Bernie — and Joe Biden, who has been under relentless assault from the Trump machine since Trump took the oath of office — understand that presidential politics is hardball; and they both understand that despite the fact that it seems like the campaign has been going on for ever, the real game is only just starting.
Only a few days before the Iowa caucuses and it is anyone’s guess who is going to emerge as the Democratic Party nominee. Bernie has risen to the top, while Joe Biden has remained remarkably durable, and with the likelihood that no clear winner will emerge from the first four primaries — along with his new gift from the DNC — Mike Bloomberg has been given a reason to believe he has a shot.
There it is: unless Elizabeth Warren somehow pulls an upset, we are left with three white, septuagenarian men looking to take a shot at a fourth, who now sits at the height of his power. Suffice it to say, as the gun sounds on the primaries and election year rolls into its second month, the Godfather of the GOP is waiting. He has passed through his trial of fire, his support is rock solid, and whoever emerges as the Democrat nominee is going to face an assault the likes of which no candidate has faced before.
Follow David Paul on Twitter @dpaul. He is working on a book, with a working title of “FedExit! To Save Our Democracy, It’s Time to Let Alabama Be Alabama and Set California Free.”
Artwork by Joe Dworetzky. Check out Joe’s political cartooning at www.jayduret.com. Follow him on Twitter @jayduret or Instagram at @joefaces.