I’m not sure who this op-ed benefits. It’s of limited use to Democrats since Flake is now an ex-senator and his critiques of Trump long ago lost their novelty. It may be actually harmful to Republicans since Flake has come to be seen as righties as the consummate RINO, partly because of his antipathy to the president and partly for some of the policy positions he took as a senator, like joining the Gang of Eight. When Mitt Romney criticizes Trump, he can at least claim to have enough support in his home state as to be (probably) primary-proof. There’s a Romney constituency out there — in Utah, at least. But there’s no Flake constituency. He was such a sure loser in his Senate primary in Arizona that he didn’t even bother to contest it.
And so, if you’re a Senate GOPer like Susan Collins or Cory Gardner who’s troubled by Trump’s interactions with Ukraine but terrified of an electoral backlash, Flake’s op-ed arguably does you more harm than good. Now, if you end up taking sides against Trump on impeachment, you’re not just undermining the president. You’re doing the bidding of the RINO king.
Some former politicians recognize how inserting themselves into this national debate might end up backfiring on their own side, and thus decline to do so. You’ll notice that the Obamas have been quiet lately. At a moment when Republican voters are weighing whether to support or oppose impeachment, O knows that announcing his support would tip many right-leaning undecideds into opposition, and so he’s keeping quiet. Jeff Flake, like Hillary Clinton, either hasn’t learned that lesson or cares less about what happens to Trump here than with getting his own views on the record.
Much of Flake’s critique here is stuff you’ve heard him say before but his view on impeachment is new. He knows the odds of Senate Republicans removing Trump are next to zero, so he’s reframing the issue. What’s at stake isn’t whether Trump should be removed, he insists. It’s whether he should be reelected. That’s what congressional Republicans should be pressed on, not impeachment.
Now, two years later, it is my former Republican Senate colleagues who have a decision to make. Or, as I see it, two decisions to make. The first is difficult; the second is easy…
Compelling arguments will be made on both sides of the impeachment question. With what we now know, the president’s actions warrant impeachment. The Constitution of course does not require it, and although Article II, Section 4 is clear about remedies for abuse of office, I have grave reservations about impeachment. I fear that, given the profound division in the country, an impeachment proceeding at such a toxic moment might actually benefit a president who thrives on chaos. Disunion is the oxygen of this presidency. He is the maestro of a brand of discord that benefits only him and ravages everything else. So although impeachment now seems inevitable, I fear it all the same. I understand others who might have similar reservations. The decision to impeach or not is a difficult one indeed.
Now for the easy decision. If the House decides against filing articles of impeachment, or the Senate fails to convict, Senate Republicans will have to decide whether, given what we now know about the president’s actions and behavior, to support his reelection. Obviously, the answer is no…
My fellow Republicans, it is time to risk your careers in favor of your principles. Whether you believe the president deserves impeachment, you know he does not deserve reelection.
Logically you can imagine how a senator might justify acquitting Trump on impeachment charges while declining to endorse him for reelection. Impeachment and removal has to do with specific facts and specific offenses; reelection is an omnibus assessment of the president’s first four years. If Democrats don’t have the evidence needed to remove him, they don’t have it. But one might still nevertheless conclude that the trade war was a mistake, or that he’s too soft on malefactors like North Korea and Iran, or that it’s enough with the farking tweets already, and recommend canceling this reality show next fall.
But in practice, it’s unlikely. One of Democrats’ chief worries in impeaching Trump is that the impeachment process will end up overshadowing all other moral and ethical objections to him. The Democrats’ own process in the House is contributing to that, with Pelosi reportedly encouraging committee chairs who are investigating different strands of Trump’s behavior — emoluments, hush-money payments, etc — to wrap it up soon and bring everything to Nadler for the formation of final impeachment articles. If Trump is impeached and the Senate acquits him, as everyone expects, the president will spend all next year crowing that he’s now twice been given a clean bill of legal health, first with Mueller and again on Ukraine. And a president who’s clean legally must be clean morally and ethically as well. Not all voters will buy that but some, particularly those disposed to support him for other reasons like the economy, will clutch at it. “Why should I be bothered by anything Trump’s accused of if Congress isn’t bothered enough to do something about it? There’s no there there.”
And so, returning to Flake’s point, how would a Republican who voted to acquit him justify turning around and declining to endorse him for reelection? If he’s not guilty, he must be reelected in all fairness; that’ll be the Republican pitch. Flake’s position would actually undo the political benefit Republican senators are seeking in the first place by voting for acquittal. The reason the odds of removal are so remote is because GOPers know they’d face an insurrection back home if they vote yes. But they’ll face the same anger (well, maybe not quite as intense) if they refuse to back Trump over the Democratic alternative in November. It’s strange for Flake to recognize, correctly, that the party is now a cult of personality with the bonds of loyalty turbo-charged by negative partisanship and then to recommend trying to topple the cult leader passively instead of actively. If you’re going to enrage your base, you might as well do it by ousting Trump forcibly via removal instead of merely withholding an endorsement that likely won’t matter to anyone except the voters who are mad at you.
He does make a good point, though, when he writes, “From the ordeal of this presidency, perhaps the most horrible — and lasting — effect on our democracy will be that at some point we simply stopped being shocked.” We’ve largely reached that point already. Not completely…
I have visited nations ravaged by civil war. @realDonaldTrump I have never imagined such a quote to be repeated by a President. This is beyond repugnant. https://t.co/a5Bae7bP7g
— Adam Kinzinger (@RepKinzinger) September 30, 2019
…but the fascist-sounding tweets Trump sent over the past 24 hours about civil war and wanting to arrest Adam Schiff for treason will fade from the news cycle before the day is out. This is just how things are now. Take him literally but not seriously, or seriously but not literally. Whatever gets us through the day.
Go read Ross Douthat’s half-hearted pitch on the benefits to the GOP of removing Trump now instead of risking another four-year term. I say “half-hearted” because he knows it won’t happen, no matter how strong the evidence before the Senate is, but the argument that a second Trump term will be miserable for Republicans is compelling and clear. Democrats will become even more radicalized and less willing to compromise with Trump; unless Republicans take back the House in 2020 or 2022, his agenda will be paralyzed for the duration by Pelosi. Dems are also apt to fare well in the 2022 midterms, as tends to happen with the out-party. If they retake the Senate, Trump’s power to fill vacancies will be paralyzed too. Once he’s no longer accountable to voters, the tweets are apt to get crazier, the foreign policy more unpredictable, the personnel moves more erratic. Eight years of Trump fatigue would make the electorate wary of whichever Trump-lite nominee the GOP ends up with in 2024. None of these pragmatic concerns will matter once the impeachment battle lines are drawn, nor should they — *if* the Senate trial process really is a neutral fact-finding process about a particular allegation. But if in reality it’s a political litmus test, then here’s Douthat adding to that test. What’s really best for the party over the next five years?