Two primary motivations typically drive legislative leaders: doing right by the country and providing political protection to their caucuses.
“Moscow Mitch” McConnell (R-Ky.), the Senate majority leader, and House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) are sacrificing both on the altar of protecting Donald Trump. Their actions will likely exact a heavy toll.
To the nation’s detriment, McConnell and McCarthy are committed to overturning constitutional precedent in two broad respects.
First, they wish to change the Constitution’s intent, creating a wholly new standard for impeachment — criminal guilt.
Their principle clearly overturns precedent. In line with the Founders’ intent, other officers of the United States have been impeached and removed for offenses that do not violate criminal statutes.
Moreover, the same Justice Department Office of Legal Counsel which former special counsel Robert Mueller believed prevented him from indicting a sitting president, made clear that “impeachment is designed to enable Congress to protect the nation against officers who have demonstrated that they are unfit to carry out important public responsibilities, not to penalize individuals for their criminal misdeeds.”
Second, McConnell and McCarthy seek to legitimize what has always been considered illegitimate, and in recent decades, illegal.
The leaders are forcing their colleagues to proclaim that forever more presidents can use their awesome influence to obtain valuable assistance from foreign powers to further their personal electoral prospects.
In addition to doing wrong by the country, McConnell and McCarthy are violating their other central leadership imperative: they’re putting their caucuses in grave political danger.
While McConnell pushes his caucus to absolve Trump of guilt, Americans who don’t identify with the GOP are in a very different place.
CNN’s latest poll finds voters nationwide favor convicting Trump and removing him from office by a 6-point margin.
Independents who live in battleground states want Trump removed by a whopping 16-point margin.
Those states are not only crucial for Trump, but also home to endangered Republican senators, who’ll be punished for choosing McConnell and Trump over the voters they are elected to represent.
Americans are clear that Trump is guilty of the charges enumerated in the articles of impeachment. Overall, 58 percent believe the abuse of power charge against him is true, while 57 percent believe he obstructed the House’s impeachment inquiry, with independents even more likely to believe both charges.
Americans also reject the kind of trial McConnell’s planning. Sixty-nine percent, including a plurality of Republicans, want a Senate trial to include testimony from new witnesses.
The public is demanding the whole truth. McConnell and company want to ignore, if not hide, as much of the truth as possible.
So, it’s no surprise that voters already express dissatisfaction with Republicans’ conduct of the inquiry. Americans disapprove of the way Republicans in Congress are handling impeachment by a 15-point margin.
What’s the political translation of these numbers?
In short, the GOP is in trouble.
Trump’s approval rating, which is highly correlated with both his own electoral prospects and those of his co-partisans in the House and Senate, is on average, less than a point away from where it was going into the GOP disaster of 2018.
The generic congressional vote is within 2 points of where it was at the time of the Republicans’ 2018 debacle.
Now, in truth, neither set of numbers has moved much for many months.
They may not be at their present levels because of impeachment. But Republicans’ handling of impeachment has certainly prevented the party from improving their position.
And by handing Democrats new issues with which to bludgeon Republicans, McConnell and company are making it more likely their endangered colleagues will not survive this November’s election.
Will the defeated decide that loyalty to Trump and McConnell was worth losing their seats?
They may have many quiet years during which to contemplate the question.
Mellman is president of The Mellman Group and has helped elect 30 U.S. senators, 12 governors and dozens of House members. Mellman served as pollster to Senate Democratic leaders for over 20 years and as president of the American Association of Political Consultants.