Romney’s response on the Senate floor was brief and direct. He stood up for institutionalism. The Constitution, he argued, grants an essential role to voters. But removing a president for high crimes and misdemeanors is a power specifically delegated to the U.S. Senate. The punishment of presidential corruption and abuse of power is not entrusted to a plebiscite. It is the responsibility of senators, who are not serving the constitutional order by surrendering their proper role within it.
Romney stood up for the role of facts in our public life. The truth, he argued, does not depend on the needs and demands of our political tribe. At the center of impeachment was a factual question: Did the president commit an act so serious that it rises to the level of a high crime and misdemeanor? “Yes,” said Romney, “he did.”
And Romney stood up for the role of individual conscience in our political life. “Were I to ignore the evidence that has been presented,” he said, “and disregard what I believe my oath and the Constitution demands of me for the sake of a partisan end, it would, I fear, expose my character to history’s rebuke and the censure of my own conscience.”
What Romney regards as the defining moral commitments of his public life have no role at all in the president’s worldview. Institutions are obstacles to his whims. Truth is whatever he makes it. Conscience is for saps and losers. Trump’s presidency has been a rolling assault on these democratic virtues. Yet only one Republican senator was willing to be counted in their cause.
From one perspective, this is pathetic. Has all the history of Republican idealism really come down to this? But there is another way to look at it. In politics, one is an infinitely higher number than zero. Zero is unbroken, disorienting darkness. It is the hiss of the last dead ember. It is the final breath that leaves a body. It is the day with no tomorrows.
But one, at least, is something. It is the possibility of integrity and courage. It is a spark in the darkness that draws your eye and allows you to set your direction.
In Romney’s floor speech, he anticipated that he might “hear abuse from the president and his supporters.” This is a pretty good bet. But the voters of Utah who elected Romney need to hear something from the Republican resistance to Trumpism. Many of us who have taken part in GOP politics over the past 30 years have been motivated by the belief that a center-right party could encourage both free markets and the values that make freedom more just and humane. We thought that a belief in individual enterprise could be accompanied by communal commitments to compassion, inclusion and public integrity.
Those in this camp look at our current political debate and often feel homeless. For us, Romney’s vote for removal had a broader significance. Here, finally, was an elected Republican willing to stand up to Trump’s tactics of intimidation and bullying. Here, finally, was a Republican senator willing to defend the role and honor of the Senate. Here, finally, was a Republican willing to live in the real world of facts while holding to high ideals. When he stood alone, I and others felt less alone.
Thank you, Mitt Romney.