At a time when politics has become less and less about governing and increasingly, well, about politics, this past week is perhaps the penultimate illustration.
The testimony began in President Donald Trump’s impeachment inquiry, and the nation is watching as members of Congress from both sides of the aisle perform for the cameras and their bases — think a little William Jennings Bryan, a little Perry Mason and a lot of “Veep.”
Impeachment is, above all else, a political act. It’s not a legal one. If Democrats vote to impeach the president, he still gets to be president, as Bill Clinton can attest.
And, with the Senate needing no fewer than 20 Republicans to decide to remove him, Trump will likely remain in office and carry on his re-election bid, maybe even strengthened by the whole endeavor.
Considering the political realities, it can feel like we already know how this movie will end: matter-of-factly and anti-climactically. And yet, it isn’t outside the realm of possibilities that a Capraesque finish waits in the wings.
While former Sen. Jeff Flake, a casualty of the GOP Trump takeover, warned there could be as many as 35 Republicans in the Senate who would agree to remove Trump from office if the vote were silent, they won’t have that option. Republicans who wish to put their name on Trump’s ouster will have to do it publicly, knowing all the potential costs associated with their defiance.
The lack of courage among so many Republicans to stand up to Trump on anything, from even the smallest policy disagreements to egregious moral and ethical failures, portends a fait accompli from the Republican Senate.
But what if a “coalition that could” decided they’d had enough — that this president has been a drag on their party and the country for too long, that the price of defending him wasn’t going to be worth it in the long-term, that their own legacies were on the line? What would that look like?
Imagine it starting with just one. Larry Hogan Sr. was the first Republican to break with President Richard Nixon during his impeachment hearings, weakening not only the GOP firewall of support for the embattled president, but also Nixon’s own defiance.
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There are a number of would-be Hogan candidates to watch: Utah Sen. Mitt Romney, one of the rare Republicans who managed to criticize Trump and still get himself elected, isn’t up for reelection until 2024, giving him perhaps the longest runway to make a principled stand and then wait out Trump’s wrath.
Sens. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania aren’t up until 2022, giving both of them the opportunity to take their chances on a vote to remove without immediate political consequence.
Other Republican senators who have sometimes been reluctant to defend Trump or who have even sided with Democrats include Ben Sasse, Susan Collins, Lamar Alexander and Cory Gardner, all of whom are up for reelection next year, and will thus have to decide whether they want to tie their fates to Trump just months before their own elections.
Those may be the obvious potential defectors. But some believe the more impactful moves must come from less predictable places. As Lee Drutman has noted on FiveThirtyEight, “it’s rank-and-file Republican senators up for reelection in solidly red states, like Bill Cassidy from Louisiana or Jim Inhofe from Oklahoma, whom you should watch. If they waver, that will signal that Trump’s days are numbered.”
Of course, that’s asking a lot of senators who have done little to keep Trump in check up to this point.
But some other factors could be important. Trump’s job approval rating is underwater, 44% approval to 54% disapproval, and more support impeachment than do not, including 12% of Republican voters, a not insignificant number. That is math that Republican senators will pay attention to, especially if those numbers worsen for the president over the course of the public hearings.
But there’s one final reason the Senate is not a foregone conclusion. We tend to think of the House as a less historically significant legislative body than the Senate. There are more representatives than there are senators, they’re up for re-election every two years, and many come and go without having much of an impact.
But for senators, the stakes are higher. Their votes and their actions aren’t written in pencil, but ink. It’s moments like these that can make or break a legacy forever. And if fewer than half of the Republican senators are mulling their own entries in the history books, it isn’t impossible to think that some could abandon the president to save themselves.
Phil Hands: Broasted Hawkeyes, bumbling Republicans and burnt out grim reapers
A collection of recent cartoons from the desk of Wisconsin State Journal editorial cartoonist Phil Hands.
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