Alan Zendell, November 3, 2019
Ask 100 Americans what they think about the partisan divisions in our country, and ninety-nine will decry how awful they are, and how, if allowed to continue, they could destroy what remains of our democracy. Ask them in the context of the House impeachment inquiry, and the results would change only in that they would be more intense, which places Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell right at the fulcrum of the most critical decision the Senate has had to make in nearly a half century.
McConnell is the quintessential political animal of his generation. Immediately after Barrack Obama’s first inauguration, McConnell said his job was to assure that Obama would be a one term president, at a time when the nation’s economy was teetering on the brink of collapse. Obama put politics aside and retained the services of President Bush’s economic brain trust to provide continuity in a crisis instead of blaming them for causing it.
Until a few weeks ago I was still writing that impeachment was a huge mistake, that there was virtually no chance that the McConnell led Senate would ever vote to remove Trump from office. Nothing would be gained except further rancor and division. But then two things happened. A whistleblower in the Intelligence community accused Trump of using his power as president to blackmail a foreign country to dig up dirt on Joe Biden, who national polls said had the best chance of defeating him in next year’s election. Then the president ordered American military forces out of Syria at the behest of Turkey’s President Erdogan, whose troops were poised on their border with Syria to wipe out the Kurdish allies who had destroyed the ISIS Caliphate for us at a cost of 11,000 of their own fighters.
As it became clear that the whistleblower’s complaint would be corroborated by testimony from nonpolitical career diplomats, House Democrats felt they had no choice but to formally pursue impeachment. At the same time, key Senate Republicans, notably Lindsey Graham and McConnell himself pointedly attacked Trump’s decision to abandon the Kurds to Turkey which if not stopped might carry out the ethnic cleansing it had been threatening for decades.
When it was clear that the fate of Trump’s presidency would soon rest in the hands of the Senate, McConnell showed that he retained a shred of the statesmanship we expect from someone in his position. His condemnation of Trump’s decision to abandon the Kurds against the advice of literally everyone who understood the situation answered the question of what it would take to end Republicans marching in lockstep with the president.
The game suddenly and unexpectedly changed. No longer can Trump count on blind loyalty from the Senate, which again poses the question, “What will it take?” We still don’t know, as every Senator weighs self-interest against sworn duty to uphold the Constitution. Republican Senators had to weigh the same decision in 1974, as a clear bipartisan majority of the House was poised to impeach Richard Nixon. Presidential historian David Greenberg discussed this in Sunday’s Washington Post.
Greenberg noted that the situations are not the same, as the Congress was far less polarized back then. However, he made some interesting observations about what might motivate Senators today. In 1974 the investigation into Nixon’s crimes dragged on for more than a year, and for most of that time it seemed as unlikely that the Senate would convict him as that they’d convict Trump. But McConnell’s counterpart, Barry Goldwater decided to disregard politics when it became clear that Nixon had lied and attempted to cover up his abuses of power, and just like that, Nixon was done. Miracles do happen.
Greenberg asked when Republicans might decide to jump ship. He relied on history, noting that the Republicans who took an early stand against Nixon were generally viewed as heroes both in the years immediately following his resignation and still today. The president had committed felonies in office that threatened the integrity of our electoral process, and the leaders of his party acted to defend the nation. On the other hand, Republicans who jumped on the impeachment bandwagon only when the outcome was clear, with few exceptions found their political careers ruined.
That surely puts impeachment in a different light. Today’s Republican Senators not only have to weigh the dangers of angering Trump’s base against their personal duty as guardians of the Constitution, but history says their timing has to be right, too. If they act now and Trump is acquitted their own re-election chances might be shattered. If they act too late and Trump is convicted, history will write them off as self-serving cowards.
Sounds like a tough choice — except it really couldn’t be simpler. Congress is elected to serve the American people, not themselves. Now’s the time to let everyone know where they stand.