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Adam Schiff throws the ballot box under the bus

In their impeachment crusade, Democrats are undermining voters’ faith in American democracy

Rep. Adam Schiff doesn’t seem to understand the harm his comments undermining the November election has caused American democracy, Winston writes. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Rep. Adam Schiff doesn’t seem to understand the harm his comments undermining the November election has caused American democracy, Winston writes. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

OPINION — Adam Schiff crossed a line between right and wrong last week in his opening statement in the Senate impeachment trial. 

The California Democrat told senators, “We are here today to consider a much more grave matter, and that is an attempt to use the powers of the presidency to cheat in an election.”

And he went on, “For precisely this reason, the president’s misconduct cannot be decided at the ballot box — for we cannot be assured that the vote will be fairly won.”

One of the biggest challenges to the impeachment crusade has been the lingering belief by the electorate that Democrats refuse to accept the outcome of the 2016 election and that they have been trying to impeach President Donald Trump ever since. But not only does it seem like Democrats still haven’t gotten over the 2016 election, they don’t accept the potential outcome of an election that hasn’t even happened yet.

As I wrote last week, voters think they — not Congress — should be the ones to choose the next president in the upcoming election; but as Schiff has made plain for the world to see, Democrats don’t think it should be left to the voters and don’t seem willing to accede to a Trump reelection, even if that’s what the voters decide.

Under Article I of the Constitution, Congress is supposed to be the body closest to the people, yet this current House majority thinks they — not voters — should be, in George W. Bush’s words, “the decider.” If there were ever any doubt, Schiff has now articulated that belief openly.

With impeachment numbers not having moved since the House hearings began and Democrats tried to make their public case, Democrats have shifted their argument by introducing the troubling idea that “we cannot be assured that the vote will be fairly won.”

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Hurting democracy

Critics who question the validity of an election without proof ought first to consider the harm an unsubstantiated claim might have on our democratic elections and the faith Americans have placed in them for almost 250 years. This is something both Democrats and Republicans have warned about in the past.

President Barack Obama once blasted then-candidate Trump’s refusal to commit to accepting the election outcome during the third presidential debate in 2016. He said, “That is dangerous. Because when you try to sow the seeds of doubt in the people’s minds about the legitimacy of the elections, that undermines our democracy. Then you’re doing the work of our adversaries for them.”

In a March 2017 House Intelligence Committee hearing on Russian interference in the 2016 election, National Security Agency Director Michael S. Rogers told the panel, “I fully expect [the Russians] to continue this level of activity because our sense is that they have come to the conclusion that it generated a positive outcome for them, in the sense that calling into question the democratic process, for example, is one element of the strategy.”

James Comey, the FBI director at the time, said much the same in that hearing: “One of the lessons [the Russians] may draw from this is that they were successful because they introduced chaos and division and discord and sowed doubt about the nature of this amazing country of ours and our democratic process.”

Schiff, then the Intelligence Committee ranking member, said in his opening statement at the hearing: “The stakes are nothing less than the future of our democracy and liberal democracy. Because we’re engaged in a new war of ideas, not communism versus capitalism, but authoritarianism versus democracy and representative government. And in the struggle, our adversary sees our political process as a legitimate field of battle.”

That was then, and this is now. By calling the president of the United States a cheat with no proof, by questioning the legitimacy of the next election and by professing doubt in the American people’s ability to choose their next leader, Schiff just delivered the outcomes that Obama, Rogers and Comey were concerned about.

Elistist views

The excessive hyperbole that marked most of the Democratic impeachment managers’ rhetoric only added to the impression that Democrats simply have no confidence in either our electoral process or the innate ability of voters to make the right choice.

Schiff’s remarks represent an elitist view that has permeated the Democratic Party and much of the media, a view that those who “don’t think like us” really aren’t capable of casting an informed vote.

But voters aren’t stupid, contrary to what the elites think, whether it’s Joe Scarborough calling the Trump defense team “a confederacy of dunces” on Tuesday or Don Lemon, the night before, allowing guests to cruelly mock Trump voters as he wipes tears of laughter from his eyes.

Elections are never perfect. Neither is democracy because winning a majority consensus isn’t an easy task. Because candidates are human. Because this is a big, complex country with as many views as there are people to believe in them. Because the diversity that has always made this country strong also makes governing it a herculean task.

The easiest way to destroy democracy is to destroy people’s faith in its legitimacy. The Russians understand that fact. Schiff’s extraordinary statement undermining the upcoming election tells me he doesn’t.

David Winston is the president of The Winston Group and a longtime adviser to congressional Republicans. He previously served as the director of planning for Speaker Newt Gingrich. He advises Fortune 100 companies, foundations, and nonprofit organizations on strategic planning and public policy issues, and is an election analyst for CBS News.

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