Senatorial courage: a lesson from 1868
Stop looking for the Edmund Ross of today; the Senate lost them long ago
One of the most politically adroit quotes from the Bible is from Proverbs: “He that troubleth his own house shall inherit the wind: and the fool shall be servant to the wise of heart.”
A lesson not learned by this Senator from Kansas in the 1860s.
Edmund Ross went from well-regarded newspaper publisher and Civil War hero to a reviled Senator, owing to a vote against the impeachment of President Andrew Johnson. He changed political parties, was removed from office by the Kansas legislature, and ultimately ventured southwest to the New Mexico territory — not exactly a grand exit.
In the 153 years since that trial, the Unites States has had four serious impeachment efforts three of which have resulted in impeachment trials (Nixon resigned before a full House vote but after the House Judiciary Committee had approved three Articles of impeachment).
Seven years before the impeachment trial of President Bill Clinton, a curious and fairly realist book was published by Chief Justice William Rehnquist called “Grand Inquests”.
In the book, Rehnquist pointed out the political nature of impeachment and saw that the requirement of “High Crimes and Misdemeanors” tempered its overuse but did not eliminate it. In addition, he argued that except for actual criminal conduct presidents are only answerable to the electorate. The book was well received but hardly a best seller. It did, however, get a second crack at “flying off the bookshelves”, when the Senate convened in 1999 to consider two impeachment Articles against Clinton with Rehnquist presiding over the trial.
Whatever one thinks about the rather weak perjury impeachment Article and the more serious (but clearly political) obstruction of justice Article against Clinton, it stands as a rather curious test for five Republican Senators who have now sat for three impeachment trials. Senators Crapo (ID), Grassley (IA), Inhofe (OK), McConnell (KY), and Shelby (AL) all found that there was obstruction in the Clinton impeachment, but acquitted on the question of Abuse of Power and Obstruction of Congress in Trump’s first impeachment trial. While partisan politics is certainly the clear explanation, what is lost is any attempt to parse a difference in their verdicts now. Partisanship eschews such things. (It should be noted that Shelby acquitted Clinton on the perjury charge but not the obstruction charge).
In the Clinton trial, ten Republican Senators acquitted on the perjury charge and five acquitted on the Obstruction charge. While Senator Susan Collins (R-ME) certainly deserved some credit for her willingness to “inherit the wind”, her risk in doing so then was minimal. Four of the five Republicans, who did not join in convicting Clinton on both charges, were fellow Yankee Republicans, including her fellow Mainer Olympia Snowe. (The only non-Yankee Republican to acquit on both Articles was Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, who insisted on voting “not proven” rather than not guilty).
And now with the verdict in Trump’s second trial, the verdict stands at 57 to convict, and 43 votes of acquittal.
Amongst the Republicans who have shown an inkling of Edmund Ross’ courage, one is retiring (Patrick Toomey of Pennsylvania), three were just reelected (Collins, Bill Cassidy of Louisiana, and Ben Sasse of Nebraska), and one will not face the voters until 2024 (Mitt Romney of Utah).
Senator Lisa Murkowski, who is up for reelection in 2022, could be the Edmund Ross. Murkowski might possibly benefit from a recent change in Alaska to ranked choice voting, which all but assures Murkowski of a windbreak for her political house.
Bill Cassidy (who joined with the other 5 Republican on a question of whether the trial should go forward constitutionally speaking) notwithstanding, none of the remaining votes to convict Trump is an Edmund Ross figure. Four of the Senators have been critical of Trump throughout his presidency. Patrick Toomey might be the Ross within the GOP, but Toomey like many elected Republicans in Georgia, Wisconsin, Arizona, Michigan, and Pennsylvania took umbrage of having their states’ elections attacked by Trump without any evidence. Toomey’s position is more don’t “troubleth my house” than a refusal to be a hypocrite. Plus, retirement takes the edge off the vaunted status of being courageous.
Retiring and voting one’s conscience would seem to be a laudable exit. But Senators Rob Portman (OH), and Richard Shelby (AL) appear to be exiting the political stage with their Trump fealty in tact (while Richard Burr (NC) voted to convict). The timing of Portman and Shelby’s retirement announcements having fallen between the House impeachment vote and the Senate trial, led some political observers to see two guilty votes, but the reality of fundraising requires a much longer game nowadays and such announcements are the political norm.
What of the remainder of the 2022 class of Republican Senators? It is there where the most likely Edmund Ross Senators are to be found.
Political realism requires that any Republican Senator without a safe seat stick with Trump. This excuses Marco Rubio (FL) and Ron Johnson (WI). Of the 14 remaining GOP Senators, only Roy Blunt (MO) and Todd Young (IN) had close elections last time around. (Political analysts Charles Cook and Larry Sabato have rated their Senate seats as safely Republican.) And among the remaining Senators, only Charles Grassley of Iowa hails from a state with an electoral record of going Democratic often enough to matter. And Grassley himself may actually retire. Lots of opportunities to lean into the political winds, but none inured to the risk of falling down even briefly.
Why no Edmund Ross profiles in courage? Given the censures of GOP politicos like Cindy McCain, Liz Cheney, and Ben Sasse recently, it is not hard to see that scorched earth politics of Newt Gingrich, stark divisiveness of George W Bush, and the RINO excommunication tactics of the Tea Party have turned the Republican Party into a very small tent. Talk of the Trump cult-like mindset within the GOP today — without seeing the Orwellian Newspeak that has been culled and pushed by the GOP for the past quarter century — is politically naïve.
There are no Rosses, because much like the prairie winds that fly across the Kansas Plains, the wind you inherit could destroy your house or send you far far away.