It was a stirring speech, both as a statement of principles and as a stern rebuke to the remainder of the Republican senators who would, a little more than an hour later, vote to allow Trump to continue on in office even though a number of them clearly believed Trump’s behavior — holding up military to the Ukraine in the pursuit of political advantage — was wrong.
No doubt Romney’s now exposed himself to a world of pain and bullying. The immediate response of Trump World? To remind everyone Romney was a not successful Republican nominee for president. “Mitt Romney is forever bitter he will not be POTUS,” tweeted Donald Trump Jr. “He was too weak to beat the Democrats then so he’s joining them now.”
The same thing happened to John McCain after he famously voted down the prized Republican “skinny repeal” of the Affordable Care Act. Trump and his minions relentlessly bullied him, even as he was dying of cancer. Trump’s fury continued unabated after McCain’s death. “I was not a big fan of John McCain,” Trump said last year, after reports surfaced that officials attempted to hide a ship named after the late senator from him. Another time, he seemed to celebrate the fact McCain was dead. Really.
But McCain and Romney have something in common besides simply defying Trump, even as the Republican Party consolidates behind him. They both ran for president as the official nominee of the Republican Party, and they both lost to Barack Obama. It occurs to me this is not a coincidence.
When I first came to Washington as an intern (longer ago then I would like to admit), one thing that stood out to me was how often insiders would defend decisions by elected officials by pointing out that they needed to make this vote or that one to get reelected. When I asked what the point of that was — didn’t you go to Washington to do what you believed was right? — I was more than once dismissed as hopelessly young and naive.
I thought about that Tuesday night, as I sat in a Washington hotel room watching Republicans frantically applaud and cheer Trump’s State of the Union address in which he lied (no, he’s not protecting preexisting conditions) repeatedly insulted the Democrats and turned a serious political address into a reality show, complete with prizes and surprise guest appearances. Any number of them opposed him — sometimes vociferously — when he ran for president in 2016. They accurately took his measure as a man and politician and found him dangerous. But now they are almost all cowed and acquiescent. They are toadies to power.
Too many seek excuses for the Republicans who go along with Trump — they fear their base, they prioritize tax cuts and the appointment of conservative judges, they need to earn a living as lobbyists after they leave office, etc. It’s so much excuse-making. Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), who just the other day deemed Trump’s actions “inappropriate” but still would not vote to allow the senate to hear from witnesses before voting on impeachment, citing the tautology that it would be “partisan” to do so. (It’s partisan because the Republicans made it that way.) Alexander is not running for reelection, is 79 years old and enjoys an eight-figure net worth. If not now, when?
You don’t need to agree with McCain or Romney’s politics to understand they are men of principle and courage — who either always believed or came to discover there are things more important than becoming president. They wanted to become president, not simply for reasons of ego and narcissism, but because they wanted the chance to do what they saw as right from the most important position in the United States, if not the world. They understood that ethics and political morals matter, that one should not seek power and influence for the sake of power and influence. There are places you should not go. You do not take health insurance away from millions of people, or vote to allow a criminal president to remain in office. It’s just wrong.
I am not religious, but it occurs to me that a line from the New Testament suits this moment: “For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world, but loses his soul?” Romney will likely never be president of the United States, but he still possesses his soul, and we as a nation, even on this sad and infuriating day, are the better for it.