The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion The Trump 51 and their challenge to Democrats — and democracy

Sen. Bernie Sanders campaigns in Newton, Iowa, on Sunday.
Sen. Bernie Sanders campaigns in Newton, Iowa, on Sunday. (Mike Segar/Reuters)
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The Republican-led Senate has sent a very clear message: President Trump can get away with anything.

Now, only the voters can stop him — and no one is more aware of this than Iowa Democrats, who cast the first votes of 2020 on Monday night. Their desperation to find the right champion against Trump was only intensified by the Republicans’ cowardice.

It was painful to watch 51 senators vote away their power to hold the president accountable by rejecting a demand for witnesses and documents in the impeachment trial. The Senate calls itself “the world’s greatest deliberative body.” Those words will now provoke only derision and sorrowful laughter.

This was no ordinary roll call. It was a direct assault on American democracy and our core freedoms. Whatever the flaws of our system, we could once believe that a president who tried to bring down a political opponent by conspiring with a foreign government — and using American taxpayer dollars in the process — would be punished. The Trump 51 told us that such faith is for suckers.

David Axelrod, senior advisor to former President Barack Obama, says the presidential nominating process is flawed but should not change too much. (Video: Ben Derico/The Washington Post, Photo: Daniel Acker / Bloomberg/The Washington Post)

The moral and intellectual bankruptcy of a party that once crusaded against slavery and led the fight to amend our Constitution to guarantee equal protection under the law was exposed by the tortured rationalizations offered for its capitulation to absolutism.

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“If a call like this gets you an impeachment, I would think he would think twice before he did it again,” Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) said on NBC’s “Meet the Press” on Sunday.

Where has Alexander been since Jan. 20, 2017? It is, in the true sense of the word, pathetic to pretend that caving in to Trump this time will provide any incentive for him to behave better the next time. The very concept of “think twice before he did it again” is as alien to Trump as the words “I don’t care about money” or “It’s not all about me.”

I confess I overrated Alexander, whom I have long respected. I feel the same sense of naivete about Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) who issued an even more astounding non-explanation. “It is sad for me to admit that, as an institution, the Congress has failed,” she said.

So is she saying that since the system is shattered, I am free to smash it into even smaller pieces by ensuring that the Senate process is a sham?

There is one thing we need not fear: that the Republican apostles of surrender to Trump (and to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, his coverup sidekick) have set a precedent for their future behavior. On the contrary, we know that they will do exactly the opposite if a Democrat is president.

Sure, Democrats can be partisan, but in the art of the double standard, Republicans are Michelangelos. Hillary Clinton’s private server is worthy of subpoena after subpoena, but Trump’s risking national security secrets using a private cellphone matters not a whit. Republican-appointed judges must be rushed through at all costs. Judges named by a Democrat (see Merrick Garland) can be rejected without even a hearing.

And Republicans were oh-so-fussy about the propriety of impeachment manager Adam B. Schiff speaking truth about Trump’s vindictive pressure on GOP senators — who clearly got the message — while the president can describe Schiff as “mentally deranged” and “a very sick man” without offending the Republicans’ dainty sensibilities.

Thus are the minds of Iowa Democrats more concentrated than ever on who can defeat Trump — and end the GOP Senate dominance.

Former vice president Joe Biden hopes this preoccupation will lift him in the campaign’s closing hours. His ability to beat Trump is his calling card. “Character is on the ballot” is his battle cry.

Biden’s rivals are no less engaged with the much-derided electability issue. So Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) closed this weekend by insisting that his ability to rally new voters makes him Trump’s most formidable foe. Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) made the same claim, asserting she is best placed to unify the party.

Former South Bend, Ind., mayor Pete Buttigieg highlighted his freshness as the antidote to Trumpism. “Every single time that my party has won the White House,” he said on ABC’s “This Week,” “it’s been with a candidate who was new to national politics, opening the door to a new generation focused on the future.”

After last week, we know with certainty what the alternative future — the one with Trump and his Senate subordinates in power — looks like. Ours will be a government where the strongest rebuke to a lawless president will be: Could you please, pretty please, possibly consider not doing something like that again?

For this, we can thank the Trump 51.

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E.J. Dionne Jr.: Because of Trump, Iowa voters can’t afford to make a mistake

Stephanie Wilkinson: I wish you’d never happened, Donald Trump. But I’m grateful for you, too.