A lot of people say they want to see Washington politicians vote for principle over party, but generally they mean that for people of a different party than their own. When it happens to someone from their party, they tend to question the principle.
Since Romney’s speech announcing he would vote to convict the president on the first article of impeachment only, I’ve heard and read all sorts of reactions. Some are calling Romney courageous and taking him at his word that he voted his conscience. Others have told me they think he was just looking for a way to grab the spotlight and secure a spot in history.
Having interacted with him as a journalist since the Olympics, I tend to believe in his sincerity. By Wednesday afternoon, when he met with Utah reporters in a teleconference, his statement that this was the most difficult decision in his life was beginning to sound like a well-rehearsed talking point, but having to answer the same question several times will do that.
Earlier, Romney told the Atlantic he had studied, searched and prayed each day of the trial.
He added significantly, “But I don’t pretend that God told me what to do.”
That could sum up the struggles any of us have with important decisions in life. If you’re devout, you seek guidance, struggle until you feel peace and then move on. The person next door, perhaps equally devout, could go through the same process and reach a different solution. And perhaps you both are right.
Also, the short-term political fallout Romney faces will far outweigh the irrelevant footnote his decision will leave on the historical record — irrelevant because President Trump was going to be acquitted no matter how Romney voted.
As for history, two previous examples might lend some perspective. The first is Senator Edmund Ross of Kansas, a Republican who shocked the Senate in 1868 by voting to acquit President Andrew Johnson in the nation’s first impeachment trial. His vote kept the Republicans from the two-thirds majority they needed to remove the president from office.
The Ross example is not a perfect one. Some historians question his motives. Ross was political enemies with Senate president pro tempore, Benjamin Wade, who might have assumed the presidency if Johnson were convicted (the line of succession wasn’t clear in those days).
Others point to suspicions that Ross may have been bribed from a slush fund Johnson’s supporters had amassed.
Also, there is evidence at least four other senators would have voted to acquit, if their votes were needed. But Ross is the one whose vote ultimately counted, and he lost re-election. Later, he switched parties, and in 1885, Democratic President Grover Cleveland made him the governor of New Mexico territory. You can decide if that was a great consolation prize in those days.
The other example is Jeannette Rankin, a Montana representative who holds a unique distinction in U.S. history. She was the first woman elected to Congress. She also voted against the declaration of war in 1917 that entered the United States into WWI.
For that, she lost reelection. It took her 22 years to win back her seat, just in time to cast the lone vote against the declaration of war against Japan and Germany at the start of WWII.
Rankin was an ardent pacifist. Montanans surely knew this when they elected her. At least, they must have known it by 1940 when they elected her again. But she decided not to run in 1942, believing she would lose.
A more modern example is Rep. Barbara Lee, the lone person to vote against the resolution authorizing the use of force after 9/11. She’s still in Congress.
Romney told Utah reporters he expects “blowback from leaders in my party” both in Washington and Utah, as well as from people he meets on the street.
But will he face long-term consequences? History suggests maybe, but I have my doubts. If Romney chooses to run for reelection, that will be in 2024. Someone else will be up for election to the White House. New issues will be in play.
In a world of Snapchat, Instagram and TikTok, Americans have short memories for just about everything, even politics, and even as they keep clamoring for leaders who are guided by principle.