Why Mitt Romney ended up all alone.
James ANTLE III
Impeachment has ended in the acquittal of President Donald Trump and all we have to show for it is a legion of op-eds praising Mitt Romney, the only Republican senator to vote to convict on one of the two articles. (You can read my more skeptical take on Romney here.) The whole affair ultimately fizzled out, even though John Bolton threatened to inject some excitement into the proceedings as recently as last week. Why in the end did this end up being a party-line affair, sans Romney?
1. The public hearings made the impeachment inquiry look partisan. Republicans were outraged by the House Democrats’ process, which included a lot of closed door hearings and leaking to the press. But that was the only time period where there was an undeniable uptick in popular support for impeachment. Adam Schiff and company learned from the Robert Mueller report that you needed a clear narrative of wrongdoing, not a nuanced document about which competing arguments could be made. The House’s initial approach allowed Democrats to get their side of the Trump-Ukraine story out without the American people seeing any Democrats. Eventually, however, some kind of transparency was going to be needed (notwithstanding calls for the Senate to remove Trump by secret ballot) and once impeachment became a television show in which Democrats and Republicans did battle, momentum in the polls stalled.
Once that occurred, there was little incentive to cross party lines. Impeachment was popular enough, especially with the progressive base, that Democrats couldn’t abandon it. It was too unpopular, especially among grassroots conservatives, to compel many Republicans to break ranks. Trump isn’t as popular with Mormons as he is evangelicals, so Utah’s Romney could afford to vote for one of the articles of impeachments. Even Justin Amash, who represents Gerald Ford’s old congressional district in Michigan, had to leave the party once he decided he was pro-impeachment based on the Mueller report before Trump-Ukraine. (I defended Amash’s integrity and conservatism.) Zero Republicans ended up voting for impeachment in the House. Trump’s removal was always going to require 20 Republican senators to break ranks and that was an extremely tall order under these political conditions.
2. Democrats didn’t really expect to convict Trump. Once it was clear that this was going to be a partisan impeachment, of the kind Schiff and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi had previously wanted to avoid, it could serve only two purposes: damage Trump in the 2020 election and fire up progressives who wanted congressional Democrats to go through with this. Jim Geraghty outlined a serious case that could have pried loose some Republican this side of Amash and Romney (or at least made acquittal votes tougher to justify).
But Democrats never thought enough Republican votes were in play to matter nor did they think their activists would be satiated by an impeachment over the Impoundment Control Act. Instead they stirred together a strange cocktail of maximalist liberal Trump-Russia conspiracy claims and neoconservative talking points about the need to fight Russians over there rather than over here. The whole thing relied on hyperbole and self-serving narratives that the the White House was an Aaron Sorkin program before Trump got there.
3. The break between Trump and Senate Republicans never came. Bolton aside, the big risk for Trump—who does not boast relationships with the senators in his own party as strong as Bill Clinton’s—was that he would become enraged when GOP lawmakers did not go as far in defending him as he preferred. Trump said the Ukraine phone call was “perfect,” many Republican senators believed it was inappropriate but not worth removing a president in an election year. In the end, Trump’s lawyers and House Republicans offered the defense the president wanted. Senators like Lamar Alexander explained the rationale for his votes the way he wanted. No split came, which left Romney by himself.
4. It’s an election year. At the end of the day, “Let the people vote” triumphed over Democratic arguments that asking for an investigation of the Bidens and Burisma (and still releasing the aid when nothing of consequence happened) constituted election interference that needed to be dealt with immediately. The voters are going to get to decide what they want to do with Trump.
5. It’s the Trump era. The news cycle has moved quickly ever since Trump’s famous escalator ride. On the day of his acquittal by the Senate, impeachment was perhaps the third biggest story. Even world historical events don’t feel like an especially big deal for longer than 72 hours or so. Trump powers through them and the public tunes into something else. Some other pols, like Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam, have learned from his example.