Seven Republican senators, including Maine’s Susan Collins, voted to convict Donald Trump in his recent impeachment trial, and they are getting a bum rap.
It’s not because of attacks from home-state Republicans for disloyalty; it’s because some pundits suggest they assumed no risk in voting against Trump thanks to not having to face voters in the near future.
Collins and two others aren’t up for re-election for almost six years, and two more plan to retire next year. The remaining two are mavericks, already known for challenging the ex-president.
But this conventional wisdom misses the point. Their votes involve courage with or without risking punishment at the polls.
The issue of risk in principled voting was described by President John F. Kennedy in his book, “Profiles in Courage.” He cited Republican senators, including Maine’s William Pitt Fessenden, who opposed their party in 1868 and refused to convict impeached Democrat Andrew Johnson, who survived by one vote.
To Kennedy, this showed courageous sacrifice. He claimed they suffered politically because of their votes. In fact, the decisive vote for acquittal came from a senator who was paid for it and who suffered little undeserved consequence. Neither did the others.
But Kennedy enshrined the concept of political courage: taking a risk by putting principle above party. If the Trump Seven might not face anything more than meaningless censure for making an independent judgment, did they lack courage? Such an allegation would amount to an insult to Collins and the others.
Here’s why. Of the 43 GOP senators who voted to acquit, 16 are at the start of six-year terms and at least one more will retire next year. Only 10 of these 17 senators, who enjoy the same “immunity” as the Seven, were needed to hold Trump responsible for inciting the Capitol insurrection.
They would have had historical cover. In 1974, President Richard Nixon resigned when no more than 18 GOP senators would vote to acquit him of covering up his campaign’s break-in at the Democratic National Committee headquarters. At least 25 GOP senators were ready to vote against their party and their president.
In 1999, Collins and Olympia Snowe, the two Maine GOP senators, joined a small group of Republicans who went against their party and voted to support the acquittal of President Bill Clinton on charges of lying in a lawsuit having nothing to do with his presidency.
Still, aligning with Democrats seems hard for Republicans. A recent poll reported that 59 percent of Republicans see Democrats as “enemies,’ not merely as “political opponents.” For Democrats, the numbers are almost the reverse; they see 57 percent of Republicans as opponents, not enemies.
As an aide to Sen. George McGovern, Nixon’s 1972 Democratic opponent, I was on Nixon’s so-called “enemies list.” Yes, “enemies.” Nixon tried but failed to get the IRS to audit my taxes and find something wrong.
A GOP senator voting to convict Trump might be seen as giving comfort to the enemy. Regardless of the risk, it takes real leaders to reveal that Nixon’s and Trump’s attempts to undermine elections should be understood by any American as a threat to democracy.
Alaska’s Lisa Murkowski, who voted to convict, faces re-election to the Senate in 2022. “If I can’t say what I believe that our president should stand for, then why should I ask Alaskans to stand with me?” she told reporters. That’s leadership.
The quick take on the meaning of the Senate vote ignores the longer-term evolution of voter reaction across the spectrum, especially if there are new revelations. What will the pundits say if Murkowski wins next year?
The media with its “breaking news” focus and punditry often lacking in perspective have breathlessly pounced on the instantly negative reaction in the home states of GOP senators voting to convict. They imply that some senators may have suppressed a vote against Trump out of political fear.
Some of the possibly immune Republicans could have shown profiles in courage. Like Mitch McConnell, the minority leader, they might have believed that Trump really is guilty but voted to acquit. Unlike Kennedy’s heroes, they are all profile and no courage.
Others, perhaps most of the Republicans, may totally back Trump and stand ready, like the Nixon faithful, to allow him any transgression. They want him back or at least a Trump family member. They would crush the traditional Republicans, but could themselves fade if enthusiasm for Trump wanes as it did for Nixon.
The Senate vote clearly reveals the choice for Republicans to be made over the next four years. The country needs a strong center-right party to balance the center-left without seeing their opponents as the enemy. It does not need undying Trump loyalists.
In short, the vote made clear that the struggle is now underway to find just who are “Republicans in Name Only.”