Hugh Bailey: Taking on the ‘nuclear weapon’ on Twitter
Should the House of Representatives begin impeachment hearings? Maybe.
As they ponder that decision, should members consider political implications, including how it would play in 2020? That’s even more complicated. Jim Himes, who has represented Connecticut’s Fourth District for the past decade, argues yes, which got him in some trouble online but is, he argues, the only sensible path forward.
Himes makes himself available on social media in a way that some politicians shun. Last Monday, he engaged in an extended Twitter discussion with a group that included a few known figures but mostly random users, who may or may not have been constituents or, who knows, even real people. But the discussion got to the heart of serious questions facing Congress, and what the job of representative actually entails.
It started with a reporter posing a question on Twitter: “Anyone want to guess which Democratic member seemed the most forceful tonight … about not impeaching Donald Trump?” adding later, “LOL it was Jim Himes,” along with a link to a story on a private call on which Democratic House members talked about the Mueller report.
To which Himes quickly responded, “No it wasn’t. Jim Himes argued that we should reflect on and consider the effect of impeachment proceedings on the chances of the president’s re-election.”
To his credit, Himes then responded to a few dozen accounts taking him to task for, in their minds, abdicating a duty to hold the president accountable.
Key to the back-and-forth is the question of what exactly a representative in Congress is supposed to do. We don’t hold a town meeting to consider every piece of legislation that comes around; we elect people to do that job for us. If we don’t like what they’re doing, they get replaced.
But is the role of a representative to (a) do as he or she sees fit and deal with the consequences? Or is it (b) to figure out how the public feels about each piece of business and vote accordingly? Those paths would lead to radically different outcomes.
In truth, it’s almost always (a). For instance, polls show something like 90 percent support for universal background checks on gun purchases, but of course we don’t have that. The reason is that representatives don’t ask their constituents what they think on almost anything — they vote as they please and count on everyone moving on by the time Election Day comes around.
In this case, though, Himes was arguing we should put an emphasis on public opinion. It’s a defensible position, given the stakes; in a phone interview later in the week, Himes called impeachment the “nuclear weapon” of political tools. “I’m not saying we don’t impeach or that we don’t do our duty,” he said online. “I am saying we should consider public sentiment.”
The furthest that would reach, presumably, would be the extent of one’s district. It’s not for a Connecticut congressman to care about (or at least not put foremost) what people think in Ohio or Florida.
According to Himes, maybe it is: “I wasn’t forceful about not impeaching Trump ... I was forceful about making sure we had the best picture possible of how impeachment plays in presidential swing states.”
The issue here, as Himes himself acknowledged, is the unknowable. The 2016 election taught most people not to take anything for granted voting-wise. But if the goal is holding the president accountable, then all aspects of that question need to be considered, including whether such an action would help him stay in office.
One more quote from Himes’ Twitter exchange: “I was making an argument for care and consideration of facts and implications in however we choose to act. I expressed no view on how we should act.”
True enough. Take away the political question, though, and it’s clear he does know how Congress should act. In the eyes of many people, that ought to be enough.
Hugh Bailey is editorial page editor of the Connecticut Post and New Haven Register. He can be reached at email@example.com.