Just before Wednesday’s vote, Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) answered the last question when he announced his decision to vote guilty on Article I, abuse of power, delivering a speech filled with high-minded appeals to conscience, faith and duty. One might be tempted to believe that Romney reached a gut-wrenching decision only after weeks of soul-searching, were he not among Trump’s most frequent and harshest critics.
Most memorable was a high-profile speech during the 2016 primary campaign in which Romney declared Trump “a phony” and “a fraud” and urged Republicans to engage in tactical voting state-by-state to deny Trump the nomination. Such a scathing attack on a current GOP front-runner by the previous nominee was unprecedented. On Wednesday, Democrats and many in the media heralded Romney for his courage and dedication to principle. But for others, it was just the latest manifestation of his deep-seated loathing of the president.
A much bigger surprise than Romney’s defection was the party fealty exhibited by Joe Manchin III, the Democratic senator from West Virginia, a state Trump won in 2016 with nearly 69 percent of the vote. On Monday, Manchin, often a Trump ally, worked feverishly to build support for censuring the president rather than voting to remove him.
On the Senate floor, Manchin argued convincingly that impeachment was misguided, saying, “Never before in the history of our republic has there been a purely partisan impeachment vote of a president. Removing this president at this time would not only further divide our deeply divided nation, but also further poison our already toxic political atmosphere.”
But by Wednesday, it seemed obvious that Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) had done his job, and Manchin — no longer troubled over a divided nation or the backlash from his constituents — voted guilty on both articles of impeachment, as did Sens. Doug Jones (D-Ala.) and Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.), who were also considered possibilities to cross the aisle.
In this corner of Trump Country, of greater consternation than Romney’s predictability and Manchin’s self-immolation was the lukewarm response by my old boss, Ohio Sen. Rob Portman, a Republican who has often been conflicted on Trump. Portman caused heartburn here by initially saying he was open to more witnesses, and yet again by aligning himself with Sens. Susan Collins (R-Maine), Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) and Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) in condemning Trump’s Ukraine phone call. In the end, Portman held the line, voting against witnesses and to acquit the president, but Trump loyalists here grumbled about his less-than-full-throated defense.
In these bizarre and ludicrous times, it made perfect sense that Trump delivered the State of the Union address on the eve of the Senate’s vote on his fate. Trump gave one of his best speeches, and his guests in the gallery were memorable, their stories moving. Democrats for the most part sat glumly and refused to applaud even Trump’s most innocuous declarations of American success.
But the lasting image will be that of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) debasing herself and the occasion by methodically ripping in half the text of Trump’s speech. Pelosi’s constant mugging behind Trump’s back and her melodramatic paper-shredding no doubt thrilled her party’s liberal base, but it probably annoyed independents, who will tilt the election.
If you didn’t know better, you could be forgiven for wondering in recent weeks whether Democrats are trying to throw the election. Gallup this week has Trump at 49 percent approval, his highest rating ever in a poll that typically measures his support lower than other polls. While that includes an astounding 94 percent approval among Republicans, Gallup reported that “the 42% approval rating among independents is up five points, and ties three other polls as his best among that group.”
It has been speculated that Democrats insisted on impeaching Trump not to remove him from office but to forever brand him with the asterisk of impeachment. But the lesson that will surely outlive Trump’s asterisk is the folly of a hyperpartisan, fever-driven impeachment, and swing voters are likely to blame the party that carried it out.
It takes a lot for Trump to come off looking like the adult in the room, but darned if the Democrats aren’t accomplishing it lately.