The editors at National Review published a baffling editorial today on the impeachment saga, one which, if its advice is taken, could snatch defeat from the jaws of victory for Donald Trump and the Republican Party.
The article makes three basic points. One, Republican senators actually think what Trump did was wrong and want a way to say so; two, the GOP ought to admit what Trump did was wrong but does not justify removal; and three, the argument that without a crime a president can’t be removed is legally unsound.
Let’s take each in their turn and then examine the effect that taking on this entire suite of positions would have on impeachment and the general political climate.
The first assertion is that “Senate Republicans, by and large, have reached an unspoken consensus about President Trump and Ukraine,” namely that he should not have delayed aid, or dared suggest investigations that might impact potential political rival Joe Biden, and should not have kept insisting that his call was perfect. Frankly, there is no evidence of such a consensus among Republican senators, and much to suggest that it simply does not exist.
Since the beginning of this recent unpleasantness we have been hearing that behind closed doors Republicans in Congress are very worried. Prominent members of the Never Trump movement had assured us that their intel promised more than a few GOP votes to impeach Trump in the House existed. In reality, there were none. Now National Review, without any proof, appears to be making the same calculation for the Senate.
There is sparse evidence of this. Take Sen. Ted Cruz, for example, who said this week that what Trump did didn’t amount to a speeding ticket. He went on to say that what came out of the House was an abuse of the Constitution for political purposes. This does not sound like somebody waffling on whether Trump committed some foul act. And let’s face it, Cruz is far more representative of the GOP Senate caucus and the voters they represent as opposed to a Susan Collins or Mitt Romney, who sometimes take the bold stance of hinting at being troubled.
This brings us to the second point made by the editors: that these senators really wish they could make a more nuanced argument, but can’t because of Trump’s intransigence regarding the “perfect” nature of his call. Setting aside that once again no senators actually seemed to be saying this, it would have been, and remains an astoundingly bad idea as a political strategy.
The notion that a Trump apology over his call, accompanied by grave-faced GOP officials decrying the act but begging that Trump be given a second chance, would have led to Democrats backing down on their impeachment push is pure fantasy. Just as Rep. Adam Schiff tried to do in his arguments yesterday, the Democrats would have seized on Trump’s admission of any flaw in his approach as just one in a chain of illegal acts they believe the president has committed.
Had this strange act of performative public surrender been executed, impeachment would not have been any less likely, and today, Trump and Republican senators would be in a far, far worse position.
Finally, the editors take aim at the argument that this impeachment is suspect, and the Senate should not vote to remove because impeachment requires an actual crime. This is the argument that will be advanced by Alan Dershowitz in the constitutional segment of the president’s defense. And, with absolutely nothing to back it up, the editors claim this is the argument Republicans have been forced to make publicly.
Dershowitz may be right on this point or he may be wrong. It would be nice if the editors had chosen to hear his argument, which he claims is based in Senate precedent, before dismissing it. But that isn’t really the point. As I wrote about this week, Dershowitz is making an argument in the alternative.
The Trump defense is still what it was when the House GOP members made it last month. No quid pro in the call, Zelensky says no pressure, Ukraine didn’t know about the delay in aid, and the aid was released by the deadline. Dershowitz is arguing that even if everything Democrats claim is true, it still doesn’t rise to the level of impeachment. To pretend that this is the only argument Republican senators have left to defend acquittal is frankly ridiculous.
So why, when we are so close to the end of this ramshackle impeachment, one sloppily rushed through the House that acquired no support from any Republicans, are the editors of the leading conservative magazine in the country asking the party to surrender so much?
The answer, as with all things it seems, is Donald Trump.
Here I have some sympathy for the editors and the venerable institution they represent (as disclosure, I have written for National Review Online). Heavy is the head that wears the crown, and they are still the legacy crown jewel of the right. Divisions within the magazine over Trump and his presidency have been obvious since Trump’s victory. And in recent weeks they have run some anti-Trump columns as counterpoints to the general editorial position, which still seems to be that Trump should not be removed.
National Review is not and never has been so much a magazine with wide popular appeal, even on the right, but one with a strong constituency of influence. They appear to be trying to protect a pre-Trump conservative coalition, with themselves at the fore. This includes the rank and file, who are mainly pro-Trump, but also institutionalists made nervous by Trump’s style.
But Trump has come to understand a deep truth in the era of an increasingly tribal politics: the power of really, truly standing with your base. Not standing above the base, solemnly explaining how you mostly agree with them but compromises must be made, but actually in the trenches with your base.
We saw this most clearly in the Brett Kavanaugh experience, when the president’s refusal to bend to the will of conservative media commentators urging him to throw up a different candidate paid dividends not just in the outcome, but at the ballot box. A more recent example from this very week is Trump’s decision to be the first president to appear at the March for Life. Every GOP president has claimed to be pro-life, but while Democrats moved from “safe, legal, and rare,” to celebrating abortion to appease their radical base, Republicans until Trump continued to treat it as a dangerous third rail.
It is hard to overstate the power his appearance will have for a pro-life movement so often disappointed by Republicans in the past.
So, there will be no compromise on this issue of impeachment. Outside of the Acela corridor, there is simply little or no appetite for it. The Republican voter today is more pragmatic than ever, focused on the achievements rather than the man. The question is no longer, as William F. Buckley Jr. put it, which is the most conservative candidate with the chance to win; it is rather how many solid conservative policy wins can this candidate rack up.
For President Trump, that list of policy victories is extensive. No conservative can deny it. The Republican Party knows it. And they know you should never throw an effective leader under the bus for the sake of niceties, or so that people who hate you will pretend to like you, even for a moment.