Here are three quick takeaways from Romney’s move.
First, Romney is the only senator ever to vote to convict a president of his own party. None of the president’s partisans during the impeachment trials of Andrew Johnson or Bill Clinton broke against the partisan tide to side with the opposition. Granted, that standard was set by just two impeachment trials, but the lesson is clear: A president’s partisans typically close ranks to protect their own. That’s what makes Romney’s decision to break from his party so historic — and bold.
Second, Romney’s vote is a gift to Democrats because it creates a patina of bipartisanship. It might seem like a stretch to call a vote “bipartisan” on the basis of a single senator’s vote. But give an inch and lawmakers will take a mile: Romney’s move empowers Democrats to counter GOP charges that the impeachment of President Trump was just a partisan witch hunt.
Third, Romney’s speech reminds us of a perhaps forgotten era when lawmakers who weren’t party leaders made headlines and shaped events. Political scientist David Mayhew termed such moments as actions in the public sphere or stances that “register in the collective public consciousness.” These are the central bits of legislative action — speeches as well as votes — that seem politically consequential at the time. They are increasingly rare in today’s highly partisan times. More often, party leaders take center stage. Their base and party leaders often compel lawmakers to toe the party line. Sen. John McCain’s thumbs down, which ended Republican efforts to repeal the Affordable Care Act, is another exception that proves the rule.
Granted, Romney’s speech and his decision failed to persuade any of his colleagues to join him. However, it’s possible his actions helped convince the two fence-sitting swing-state Democrats. After Romney’s floor speech, Sens. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.) and Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) announced they would vote to convict Trump. It’s possible these senators had already made up their minds, but had the wavering Democrats sided with the Republicans to acquit the president, Romney’s break from his party — bringing on the wrath of his fellow Republicans — probably would have further isolated the reluctant Democrats. If Romney could stand up to Trump and his supporters, why couldn’t they?
Romney’s move did not change the outcome, but it stands out as a rare moment of an individual reshaping the news in a highly partisan and centralized Senate. And it rewrites the narrative of Trump’s impeachment.