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The Founding Fathers’ focus group on impeachment, 1787

What if we really, really don’t like the president? What do you think about that as a reason for giving him the heave-ho?

November 20, 2019

12:46 PM

20 November 2019

12:46 PM

We recently learned that House Democrats are concentrating their impeachment drive on ‘bribery’ because focus groups liked it better than other terms Democrats have floated. The term never appeared in previous testimony; no one accused President Trump of bribery or even mentioned it. That omission is only a minor obstacle, apparently.

Focus-group testing is widely recognized as the best way to deal with grave constitutional matters, as well as marketing breakfast cereals and e-cigarettes. It is not surprising, then, that legal scholars are scouring focus groups throughout American history to see what light they shed on the Trump impeachment.

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The most important of these earlier focus groups was that of the Founding Fathers, secretly convened in Philadelphia in 1787. Chairman Adam Schiff has finally released the much-anticipated transcript:

Speaker Pelosi: Hi, everybody. Let’s keep this informal and fun. Just call me Madam Speaker. Anybody want a cappuccino before we get started? Perhaps a vegan sandwich?

Mr Benjamin Franklin: What the hell is a cappuccino? Give me a plain ole venti with soy milk.

Mr James Madison: What the hell is vegan?

Speaker Pelosi: It’s sort of like eating grass, Mr Madison. Let’s just skip it and get to the main topic for today.

Mr George Washington: Yes. Let’s leave this grass thing up to the states. What’s the next topic?

Speaker Pelosi: What if the people are stupid enough to elect the wrong president? How can we kick him out of office?

Mr George Mason: Are they really that dumb?

Speaker Pelosi: Take my word for it. It happens. Have any of you been to Kentucky? Alabama? Just kidding. What if we really, really don’t like the president? What do you think about that as a reason for giving him the heave-ho?

Mr John Jay: ‘Really, really not liking him’ seems a little vague.

Mr Alexander Hamilton: May I speak?

Speaker Pelosi: I thought you just sang and danced. And I never realized you were a white guy.

Mr Hamilton: Droll, Nancy, very droll. Let’s consider the dangers here. The big one, we all recognize, is tyranny. That’s what we fought against. In our new government, where does the greatest danger of tyranny lie? In Congress. We all agree on that, except our friend Nancy. If Congress is too strong, it could become dictatorial, like Parliament. So, how do we prevent that?

Mr Madison: Let me answer that, Alex. First, we divide Congress into a House and Senate and then elect each for different periods with different electorates. That makes it hard for them to combine and form an elected dictatorship. Second, we offset the Congress with two other, independent branches, the Courts and the Executive. Since we want the courts to be independent, judges should serve for life. Also, we learned the hard way only a strong executive can carry out the laws effectively. We’re here in Philadelphia because the Articles of Confederation failed, and one reason they failed was the lack of a strong executive. So, with this new setup, we have three independent branches: Legislative, Executive, and Judicial. The way I figure it, each branch will want to defend its own turf and stop the others from overstepping their proper authority.

Mr Washington: My friend Madison here calls it the Separation of Powers. He got the idea from Montesquieu.

Speaker Pelosi: I’ve never seen this Montesquieu. Is he sitting in back?

Mr Elbridge Gerry: You haven’t seen him because he’s French. Also, he’s dead. He’s French and he’s dead, Nancy, that’s why you missed him. Anyway, I’m real busy here redrawing Congressional districts to help my friends. Anybody else up for that?

Mr Jay: A little later, Mr Gerry-mander. Let’s get back to booting the president out of office. Everybody agrees that treason is reason enough. Nobody wants President Benedict Arnold.

Mr Gouverneur Morris: Good point, John. What about bribery?

Mr Madison: Absolutely. Who wants our president to get all cozy with France just because they give him some cheese, a château in the Loire Valley, and a weekend in Montmartre with the gender of his choice? So we agree on that, right?

Mr Edmund Randolph: Sure. Plus, ‘bribery’ is real easy to grasp.

Speaker Pelosi: I’ll make a note of that. ‘Focus group likes “bribery”. It’s easy to grasp.’

Mr Rufus King: And we all want to include ‘high crimes and misdemeanors’, right?

Mr Roger Sherman: It sounds pretty impressive, sure, but I really don’t have a clue what ‘high crimes and misdemeanors’ means.

Speaker Pelosi: Don’t worry, Roger. Nobody does. What about ‘acting bad in office’ or maybe ‘acting real bad’?

All together: No!!

Mr Jay: It’s way too vague. It could encompass anything you don’t like.

Speaker Pelosi: That’s why I like it!

Mr Morris: That’s precisely why we don’t like it. It’s why we rejected impeachment for ‘maladministration of office’. Broad, vague terms like that would only encourage Congressional tyranny, which is what we’re trying to avoid here, right? I mean almost everybody. Nancy just loves it. (Friendly chuckles and huzzahs from audience. Nancy tries to smile. Fails.)

Mr Mason: Here’s a puzzler for you. What if somebody heard about somebody else hearing about the president maybe asking for a ‘quid pro quo’?

Speaker Pelosi: I’m glad you mentioned that, George. We tested that term, ‘quid pro quo’, with several other focus groups, and it’s a total loser. The only guy who liked it was a Mr Schiff. I told him, ‘Here’s a quick tip, Sherlock. Nobody likes Latin. What have the Romans ever done for us?’ Some other Einstein asked me if it involved ‘squid’. This is what I’m dealing with here. Morons. I’m surrounded by morons. The main thing is that we all agree the House gets to impeach and convict the president, right?

Mr Madison: Whoaaaaa. Hold the stagecoach there, Nancy. If we hand over everything to the House, it would invite tyranny. Let’s give them the first phase, impeachment. A simple majority vote should do. But we need to make conviction difficult. If we don’t, Congress will constantly threaten to remove the Executive unless he caves in. That’s the road to an elected dictatorship.

Mr Washington: Right-oh. Mind you, I don’t say that just because you are going to elect me the first president and put my face on a quarter. I say it because we need to prevent one dominant Congressional faction from removing a president — any president — simply because they don’t like him. Why don’t we let the Senate try the case and set a high barrier to convict? High but not impossible. A two-thirds vote should be about right. That majority would be super.

Speaker Pelosi: Wow. What a great focus group. We value your opinions. Still, I’m hoping you will go home and reconsider one minor point. I’m all for ‘high crimes’ and stuff. Sure. But I still say the House should be able to overturn an election if we really, really don’t like the president. That bar is high enough, I think. Two ‘really’’s. Or three, if you insist. One day, I hope we can try it out and see.

Charles Lipson is the Peter B. Ritzma Professor of Political Science Emeritus at the University of Chicago, where he founded the Program on International Politics, Economics, and Security.


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