Even the most casual political observer knew how this would go from the start. The Democratic-majority House will impeach Trump. The Republican-majority Senate will acquit him. Democrats will point to the mounds of evidence unearthed lashing Trump tightly to the pressure campaign spearheaded by his cronies, and Republicans will baselessly claim absolute vindication.
But it hasn’t always been this way. Nearly every other big, splashy, televised deliberation in the time of Trump has been infused with drama.
Think back to the confirmation hearings for then-Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh. Certainly, most Republicans were assumed safe votes for the nominee, even after professor Christine Blasey Ford’s testimony.
But not all of them were. Some of the most memorable moments of that marathon hearing came when then-Sen. Jeff Flake (R-AZ) seemed to waiver. In a heart-wrenching scene captured by news cameras, he was confronted in an elevator by a sobbing woman who asked him why her sexual assault meant so little to him, after he issued a statement announcing his intent to vote yes on Kavanaugh’s confirmation.
After the episode, Flake suddenly exited the hearing room accompanied by his friend Sen. Chris Coons (D-DE) in an apparent moment of epiphany. On-air reporters breathlessly tracked the lawmakers who left and came back in and left again, noting their facial reactions and speculating about the Arizona senator’s possible change of heart.
While Kavanaugh was ultimately confirmed and Flake did fall in line, he forced a temporary delay in the confirmation to allow for a (very cursory) FBI investigation.
McCain’s Thumbs Down
Earlier in Trump’s term, even stronger Republican dissension was afoot.
In the thumbs down heard ‘round the world, the late Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) put a stake through the heart of the Republican attempt to dismantle Obamacare via “skinny repeal.”
Stills of the moment look like a Renaissance painting. McCain has his arm stretched out to attract the clerk’s attention before flipping his thumb. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) stands with his head bowed and arms crossed. Sens. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) and Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) have jumped to their feet, craning to see McCain’s gesture.
Even before that emotional climax, how senators like McCain and his fellow defectors Sens. Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) and Susan Collins (R-ME) would vote dominated the headlines.
Those episodes occurred in the Senate, sometimes referred to as the “world’s greatest deliberative body.” In contrast, the impeachment action so far has occurred in the House, the traditionally more raucous chamber.
But the hearings so far feel nothing like those earlier moments. Few have bothered to speculate about which Republicans might break ranks, or to imagine any wrinkles in the proceedings. Sen. Mitt Romney’s (R-UT) initial flame throwing — calling Trump’s desire for investigations into the Bidens “appalling” — has sputtered out in a hearty dose of “keeping an open mind.” Outgoing Rep. Will Hurd’s (R-TX) utter capitulation was met with Democratic sighs rather than any real outrage.
A few different factors may be contributing this time.
One could be the mathematical mountain Democrats are trying to scale. To convict and remove Trump from office, a whopping 67 senators would have to be on board. The appeal of playing the maverick for a Republican — and bearing the resulting brunt of party leader punishment — is likely less attractive when such a high bar nearly guarantees that any defection wouldn’t ultimately matter.
In the House, the Democrats are the ones with the unbreachable advantage, and the opposite thinking may apply. A hypothetical independently minded Republican may opt to forego the intra-party fight when Democrats already have a 17-vote cushion.
Unlike in the Kavanaugh hearings or the health care vote, the impeachment math won’t allow any one or few lawmakers to play the hero. The legislative bystander effect is in full force.
There are also simply fewer non-hyper partisans in the Republican party to take up the mantle. Rep. Justin Amash (I-MI) was squeezed out of the caucus when he joined Democratic calls for impeachment. McCain is dead and Flake retired. And scores of other GOP lawmakers are heading for the exits rather than trying to carve out a corner of the party not dictated solely by Trump devotion.
That makes breaking with the President a significant political risk — one some lawmakers will never take, and one others won’t unless it promises some kind of payoff. Any bipartisan plaudits here would be muted in the face of the inevitable result.
Lastly, the White House is running a tighter ship that it has in the past. Per the New York Times, three separate groups of Trump’s advisers meet every day to beat back the impeachment assault. One is helmed by White House lawyer Pat Cipollone, one by press secretary Stephanie Grisham and one by newly hired pitbulls Tony Sayegh and Pam Bondi.
Together, they have injected the hearings and Republican acolytes with one core message: attack and muddy the process.
This tactic seems to have produced more uniformity than the scattershot strategy of the past, when the White House message of the day swung wildly from tweet to tweet. While Trump’s Twitter is as active and varied as ever, Republicans now have somewhere else to turn for more consistent guidance.
The House Judiciary Committee is set to vote the articles of impeachment out of committee on Thursday, followed by a full House vote next week and a Senate trial in January. Little pizazz — or Republican independence — is expected.