Justin Fairfax is in a heap of trouble. A week ago, I praised him as the gallantly-named paladin that would ride in and save Virginia from the unearthed depredations of Governor Ralph Northam. Now I don’t even know if he’ll survive the weekend as lieutenant governor. What it must be like to be Justin Fairfax. I can’t relate to how hard this week must be for him.
Then again, it must be much harder to be one of the women who, presuming their allegations are true, has had to live with what Fairfax did to them for more than a decade. Vanessa Tyson and Meredith Watson assuredly did not want their names in the papers this way. What they are claiming is awful, and if true, it’s grounds for not just removal from office but imprisonment. There’s no statute of limitations on rape in Virginia¹, so he faces a potential swing of outcomes he could not have imagined a week ago.
Nearly everyone in the Democratic Party of Virginia has called on Fairfax to resign, which he said he will not do. State legislator Patrick Hope—what is it with these names?—has sworn to introduce articles of impeachment against him on Monday if he does not. Let me say that again: On Monday. That is an extraordinarily swift rush to judgment for an allegation that arose on Friday. Fairfax wants an investigation, possibly of the seven-day FBI kind that Brett Kavanaugh got. That whitewash job got Republicans enough cover to make Kavanaugh a Supreme Court justice. Instead of that, Fairfax will be lucky if he is not on the street by the end of the week.
I’m not here to evaluate whether he should be. What I am instead interested in is why Democrats went nuclear so fast. What is happening to Fairfax is a remarkable escalation of power that has far broader implications than just for him. It shows how impeachment power can be used to ensure outcomes of a political nature in a hurry. So we need to know how the Fairfax case went down, and what the theory is behind it.
I could lose my game theory license by making it through thirty of these columns without describing the most game-theoryish game of all: chess. Chess is a war game on a tightly bound battlefield. Pieces are not just limited by their own movement restrictions, but by the placement of other pieces. Sometimes this helps protect those pieces; other times it stops those pieces from functioning as desired. While I don’t know if chess has a “designer” per se, I want to give him or her props for doing something I would never have the guts to do: make the most common piece the most complicated one.
The pawn has more rules than any other piece. It has a unique movement limitation (can’t move backward or sideways). It has a unique opening move (one space or two). It has a unique capture rule (captures in a different direction than it moves). It even has a unique rule if it doesn’t capture a piece (en passant).
Most significantly, it has a unique transformation, in that if it makes it all the way to the other side of the board, it can become any piece other than a king. This promotion concept makes the pawn the piece with the most potential, as the only piece more powerful than a queen is a queen with a second queen.
Fairfax makes a fine analogy to the pawn. A charismatic African American lawyer who worked his way up as a federal prosecutor, Fairfax ran for the attorney general’s office in 2013, losing to its current occupant Mark Herring (more on him in a bit) by only 4,500 votes. In 2017, he won the lieutenant governorship. His advance was methodical and impressive. When Northam got into trouble, his promotion seemed inevitable.
If Northam resigned due to his racist yearbook photo, Fairfax would assume the governorship. Then Tyson’s allegation came out, and Fairfax suggested it was a hit job by Northam. Herring’s ascension looked likely, then he admitted, unprompted, that he had worn blackface too. Because of the nature of the 2017 Virginia House of Delegates election, things now got very interesting.
Virginia Democrats did astonishingly well in 2017. Republicans held a 66–34 majority before the election but lost 15 seats, resulting in a 50–49 advantage for the GOP. That 100th seat got a bit hinky. The 94th District had a recount, but its results weren’t certified due to one questionable ballot. Yes, one voter’s error made the result a tie, then a random drawing from a ceramic bowl (wait, we do that?) gave the seat to incumbent Republican David Yancey. Which meant a 51–49 GOP majority, which meant that Republican Speaker Kirk Cox was now fourth in line for the governorship, behind Northam (blackface), Fairfax (sexual assault), and Herring (more blackface). If all three resigned at once, Governor Cox would appoint the new lieutenant governor and attorney general. All would be Republicans.
When your only three options for the top office are mortally wounded but refuse to resign, there’s only one way out: one of them has to be forced out. That way, whoever is governor can appoint someone scandal-free to one of the two lower positions, then the other two can resign or be forced out so the scandal-free candidate can ascend and fill the lower two jobs. To retain the governor’s mansion in the face of a Republican comeback, either Fairfax or Herring has to go. Fairfax has the more significant of the alleged offenses, and now more than one, so he is the obvious choice. Virginia Democrats are rallying around impeaching their own lieutenant governor not because of moral outrage over his offenses, but because it’s the only way they keep the executive branch. Someone has to be sacrificed.
The chess player knows that while all pawns have an inherent ability to be promoted, there’s no way you’re promoting all of them. Some contenders are just in the way. They may have to be sacrificed so that you can win. While you don’t have an unlimited number of pieces, you start with enough to win. You just have to keep some of them alive to do so.
For example, Richard Nixon. Despite the Democrats controlling both houses, he was in no danger of losing his officewhile just the Democrats opposed him. They could get an impeachment vote out of the House, but were at least ten votes short of a two-thirds majority in the Senate. Yet Republicans knew that Nixon was their albatross. They would face a bloodbath in 1976 if they stood behind him. So one week Nixon was there swearing he would survive the articles of impeachment, and the next he was waving from a helicopter. The GOP abandoned him because preserving the Republican presidency was of far greater import to the GOP than preserving the Nixon presidency. (If Ford hadn’t made the fool mistake of pardoning Nixon, they might’ve kept it. A cautionary tale for whoever takes over the Virginia governor’s chair.)
Bill Clinton, on the other hand, was in no danger at all. The Democrats never turned on him despite his dalliances and prevarications. During Clinton’s impeachment hearing, they sensed America was not behind the removal of a president for bad judgment. But in hindsight, you can make a case that the Senate Democrats should have cut bait after the House impeached him. Clinton’s untrustworthiness had a dampening effect on the Gore campaign. If he had been President Gore already, he’d’ve established some of his own legacy and probably would have squeaked out that 2000 win.
This has got to be going through the heads of some Republican members of Congress now. The epic failure of the Republican Party to retain the House of Representatives portends total disaster in 2020. The investigations into the malign nature of Trump and his cronies will produce an anchor around the GOP’s neck. Mike Pence is a moral man that could serve as an antidote to the profligacy of the Trump presidency. He’s many awful things, but he’s not a thief, and he’s not a Russian agent, and he’s not facing dozens of allegations of sexual assault. He’s a better gamble than Trump. Probably. Maybe. If you’re in Congress, at least you’d have to think about it, right?
I’m not saying it’s a good idea to turn on your people at the slightest provocation. Loyalty is a virtue. But it’s worth saying that we’re the one of the few western countries that doesn’t have a vote of no confidence option. In countries like Canada and the UK, you can remove a sitting leader without going to trial. In the US, the threat of impeachment is all we’ve got. Fairfax’s case is showing that sometimes, in particularly stressful circumstances, it’s the right call to make a change on your own side. Because when you’re a political party, it’s not about them winning, it’s about you winning. You can sigh and fret for appearance’s sake if you like, but sacrifices must be made.
Also, if I were Stacey Abrams, I’d move to Virginia this week.
¹After I published this, I did more investigation. Virginia does indeed have no statute of limitations on rape, and neither does North Carolina, where Fairfax is alleged to have attacked Meredith Watson. But Massachusetts does, and that’s where Fairfax is alleged to have assaulted Vanessa Tyson in July 2004. That limit is 15 years, so it must be prosecuted in the next six months if it’s going to be prosecuted ever. Delay has a very strong payoff for Fairfax.
This is the thirty-first installment of a series on politics and game theory. It has covered impeachment, Russian collusion, white supremacy, abortion, guns, nuclear war, debt, the NFL, sexual harassment, the Mueller probe, taxes, Trump’s first year, the Clinton Foundation, immigration, parades, the Democrats, hope, family separation, trade wars, Trump’s endgame, the New York Times op-ed, Justice Kavanaugh, Speaker Pelosi, lame ducks, the GOP legacy, the stock market, the Democratic field, shutdowns, third party candidates, and the Virginia scandals. Many of these essays are in my book Game Theory in the Age of Chaos, which you can preorder by clicking the link.