There’s more at stake in the Trump impeachment process than the fate of the president.
For the Republicans, saving Trump, like him or not, is a matter of saving today’s Republican Party, the party that Trump has made.
Contrast President George H.W. Bush with President Trump. Contrast Maine Gov. John McKernan with Gov. Paul LePage.
All of them ran as Republicans. But the second in each pair would likely label the first a RINO, a Republican in Name Only. And, considering today’s Trump Republicans, they would be right.
The GOP has historically been the party of business, using government to promote free enterprise in the belief that growth would benefit the entire population. It paid attention to broader social problems, creating the EPA and supporting aid to the poor.
It sought compromises with the Democrats. Differences focused more on the extent and timing of federal policies than on the need for some sort of action. A so-called moderate Republican, if any survives, is a vestige of that party.
Republican voters were generally conservative and fought new spending that led to government deficits. After President Johnson’s civil rights laws passed, the party’s base came to include anti-civil rights, former Democrats.
Extreme right-wing people had rejected politics on the grounds that the parties cared too much about being “politically correct” on issues of equality among Americans.
Uninhibited by the belief that he would actually win the 2016 election, Donald Trump appealed to untapped extreme anti-government voters that rejected not only the Democrats but also the traditional Republican Party.
The GOP was ripe for a Trumpian takeover. His supporters took control of state parties. Well-organized and sharply focused, they challenged long-term GOP office holders in party primaries. If successful, they might lose to Democrats, but they could flip seats to pure Trump policies.
In a party that was already becoming more conservative, Trump loyalists moved it to the right further and faster. Susan Collins’ decision not to run for governor of Maine in 2018 was likely influenced by the possibility that, as a moderate, she could lose in the new GOP’s primary.
Even in her Senate re-election, she may be caught in the middle. Not a Trump supporter, she voted to confirm Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court, blunting possible GOP opposition. But that same vote cost her support among independents and Democrats on whom she has relied.
To continue on its course, the Trump Republican Party needs Trump. Admittedly that’s a short-term view, but each two-year election cycle is a world unto itself.
The Republican Party is the party of Trump. Susan Collins’ party is just a memory. If Trump were removed from office, the party could lose all control over the federal government and probably some state governments. In gambling terms, they have put all their chips on Trump.
The Democratic House may impeach Trump, but that may be passed off as mere partisanship. The votes of at least 20 GOP senators would be needed to remove him from office and, unless the “smoking gun” is found right in the president’s hand, those votes will be lacking.
If Trump cannot win in 2020, the last GOP bastion is the Senate. To keep his control and the ability to block a Democratic president, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell may be ready to accept a possible dissenter like Collins, if she can hold onto her seat.
The GOP leadership believes they can win even if they lose. The rural-state weighted electoral vote and Senate representation plus their gerrymandering of congressional districts could allow them run the government with only minority support.
Democratic Speaker Nancy Pelosi seeks a big Democratic margin to overcome the possibility of a minority winner. She also wants to counter any GOP attempt to claim that the Democrats only won because of election tampering.
The Republican reluctance to oust Trump has everything to do with their political survival and, more importantly, with the survival of the Republican Party.
The Democrats seem to ignore this situation and are slipping back into their 2016 attitude: people couldn’t possibly take Trump seriously, so they will win simply by not being Trump.
Since any Democrat can win, they think, they mistakenly waste their advantage by attacking or outbidding one another. Trump is politically vulnerable, but not eliminated. The Democrats all oppose Trump policies, but they need to build big-tent unity, not simply assume it.
Just like the Republicans, the Democrats should grasp the real meaning of the impeachment process. It’s not only about who wins the impeachment battle, but who wins in November 2020.