Senate Republicans’ Trump Dilemma

It’s looking more likely every day like the House of Representatives is going to impeach President Donald Trump, forcing a trial in the Senate. To some senators, the question will look like a painful one, pitting integrity and character against practical, political risks. Senators, as jurors in the impeachment trial, should take great care in evaluating the evidence of high crimes and misdemeanors. But at this point, the political considerations should be clear. In this case, the politics are better served by voting to remove.

Even Andrew McCarthy, a strident critic of the impeachment inquiry, acknowledges that impeachment is a political process, not a legal one. Republican senators – and all Republicans – can therefore think about a Senate trial in strictly political terms. The question isn’t about how to define the intentionally ambiguous “high crimes and misdemeanors” standard given by the Constitution, or what amount of evidence is required to convict.

Instead, the question facing Senate Republicans is this: Is the GOP better off sticking with Trump as long as it can, or would its long-term interests be better served by separating itself from him?

There’s an historical parallel they should study. The near-impeachment and forced resignation of Richard Nixon allowed the Republican Party to cleanse itself of the stench of Watergate and reform itself dramatically during the Carter administration. The Carter years were painful, but they were followed by the rise of Ronald Reagan, the most impactful Republican politician since Eisenhower. Indeed, from 1980 to 2008, a span of almost 30 years, the conservative movement was the dominant political force in America. The one Democratic president during that time was a Southern moderate who capitulated to Republican efforts like welfare reform and balancing the federal budget.

If Republicans are willing to begin the process of moving on from President Trump, they can hasten the opportunity for the next Reagan. If they choose to stand by the president, the outlook is less rosy.

Three notable election cycles have passed since Trump’s inauguration. In 2017, the Democrats gained a Senate seat and a governorship previously held by Republicans. The next year, while a favorable map allowed Republicans to gain two Senate seats, they lost 7 governorships and 41 House seats in the biggest Republican defeat since (not coincidentally) Watergate. Democrats also made historic gains in state legislatures, bringing progressive policies to millions more Americans.

Just last week, more evidence came pouring in that the Trump version of the GOP can’t compete against the Democrats. The Democratic candidate won in Kentucky – a state Trump won by 30 points in 2016. Even direct intervention by the president couldn’t stop the blue wave.

The same pattern repeated in the key swing state of Pennsylvania. The headline from the Philadelphia Inquirer captures the spirit of Election Night 2019: “The blue wave crashed down on Pennsylvania again, as voters from Philly to Delaware County turned left.” The details are even worse for Republicans in the long term: “Locally, Democrats will hold all five seats on the Delaware County Council, a Republican stronghold since the Civil War, and also assumed a majority on the legislative body in Chester County. In Bucks County, Democrats captured the Board of Commissioners for the first time since 1983.”

Meanwhile, in the formerly-purple-now-blue state of Virginia, Democrats captured unified control of the state legislature for the first time in 20 years. In addition to the legislature, Democrats also control all three state-wide offices in Virginia.

These results should be a warning to Republican senators who want a future for the GOP. The country may not like the radical progressivism of Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders, but they also aren’t buying what President Trump is selling.

There are good arguments that the rule of law and the constitutional order are best served by removing President Trump from office. If the quid pro quo with Ukraine is sufficiently proven, Republicans should demonstrate that they find the abuse of executive power unacceptable. Otherwise, they’re inviting a President Warren or Biden or Sanders to do the same thing.

But, if congressional Republicans want to ignore the long-term implications of their vote for the American experiment in self-government and vote purely based on the interests of their party, they shouldn’t be defending the president. It’s proved beyond a reasonable doubt: The GOP is better off without Trump.

Phil Heimlich is a former assistant prosecutor, Cincinnati city council member and Hamilton County commissioner, and a legal adviser to Republicans for the Rule of Law.

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