The decision by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., to push through rules governing President Donald Trump’s impeachment trial that meet none of Minority Leader Chuck Schumer’s, D-N.Y., demands has been harshly criticized. McConnell is right, and his critics are wrong.
This impeachment has been a purely political affair from the start. A majority of Democratic voters and most elite pundits and commentators have wanted Trump gone from Day One. Their relentless — often vitriolic — 24/7 campaign to persuade Americans to remove the hated interloper from office before the next election is unprecedented in modern politics.
The political challenge for impeachment advocates was that this never-ending barrage had hardened Trump supporters’ resolve. These people interpret the past three years as an unsubtle attempt to coerce their unconditional surrender on matters of policy and culture that they deeply care about. Cornered dogs fight fiercely rather than submit. Trump voters are no different.
House Democratic leaders, then, faced a serious choice when they decided to take up impeachment. They would need 20 GOP votes to convict Trump in the Senate. That was not going to happen so long as supermajorities of Trump voters opposed impeachment. Changing that calculus would have required a reversal in tactics, from never-ending assaults to calmer efforts to persuade. That would require GOP cooperation and take time.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., would have none of that. We can’t know another’s mind, but her actions were entirely consistent with those of someone who wanted to simultaneously gratify her party base and put Republicans on the defensive. The House process was designed to accomplish those goals.
Democrats conducted closed-door proceedings, but their findings were always mysteriously leaked to friendly media each afternoon, ensuring that they controlled the flow of information. The House Intelligence Committee’s public hearings chaired by Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., were a mockery of an evenhanded inquiry. As his daily opening and closing statements showed, this was the political equivalent of a grand jury hearing where a prosecutor controls the information to get an indictment from jurors on his or her terms. House Judiciary Chairman Jerrold Nadler’s, D-N.Y., hearings were less competently run, but equally unbalanced and outcome-driven. Unlike the successful Watergate hearings, the final outcome was never in doubt.
Impeachment advocates seem to have never fully grasped, however, that they would have no influence over how McConnell would run the Senate trial. So long as McConnell could get 51 votes behind him, he could set the rules for the trial every bit as much to his political advantage as Pelosi did in the House.
McConnell is widely acknowledged as one of the Senate’s shrewder leaders ever. He knew that it ultimately wouldn’t matter whether the handful of politically conflicted Republican senators such as Susan Collins of Maine, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and Cory Gardner of Colorado voted against Trump in impeachment, so long as he had their loyalty on the rules. And it was always in their interest to give him that commitment.
McConnell’s decision should remind impeachment advocates, who constantly bray about their devotion to democracy, of two democratic principles. The first is that in our federalist, bicameral system, you need more than simply narrow majorities to rule. The leaders of the Senate are every bit as constitutionally empowered to fight for their interests, and those of their voters, as leaders of the House or the president are to fight for theirs.
The second is that Trump voters are Americans, too. There’s a reason it’s hard to impeach and remove someone: The Founders set high hurdles to ensure that narrow partisan majorities could not take power away from people whose power flows from elections. That means some Trump voters needed to be convinced to defect, and that required treating their views and opinions compassionately. Anti-Trumpers have never done that.
This impeachment has always been an exercise in bare-knuckle politics. McConnell excels at winning this type of fight. It’s no surprise he’s ruthlessly exercising the power he has. It will also be no surprise that Republicans will praise him for doing this.