You are a first-term U.S. House Democrat, representing a large, sparsely populated district.
In 2018, by a narrow margin, you took a seat, previously held by a Republican. The district had voted for Trump in the 2016 election. You are among the 31 House Democrats, 22 in their first term, who won in districts he carried.
After taking office, you held yourself somewhat aloof from Democratic House leadership. Now, you are faced with the decision of whether to vote to impeach President Trump. There are no party instructions on this vote, because Speaker Pelosi understands your dilemma.
These 31 representatives are the swing votes who will decide if the president will be impeached.
If you are Anthony Brindisi, a newcomer from upstate New York whose district gave Trump a 15 percent margin, you vote in favor of both articles of impeachment.
If you are Jared Golden, from Maine’s 2nd district that gave him a 10 percent margin, you split your vote on the two articles, an action not taken by any other House member.
If you are New Jersey’s Jeff Van Drew, whose district gave Trump only a 4 percent margin, you vote against both impeachment articles, quit the Democrats and become a Republican. Despite Trump’s endorsement, you could well lose your seat.
Two Democrats, Van Drew plus a long-time conservative, voted against both impeachment articles and a third abstained, having the same effect. If only 17 more had joined them, there would have been no Trump impeachment.
The media did the GOP a great service and the voters a great disservice by jumping to the conclusion that the outcome was partisan, except for the three Democrats. That disrespected the integrity of each of the 31supposedly vulnerable Democrats. And it glossed over Trump’s standing in their districts.
Here’s what’s wrong with the media’s conclusion.
There was one GOP defector. Justin Amash, a five-term Michigan Republican, had quit the party to become an independent before the impeachment vote. He opposed Trump, quit his party and announced he would not run again. He voted for both articles, but, because of timing, the media did not count him as a GOP defector.
His district voted by 9 percent for Trump. Did his impeachment votes matter? Yes, to Trump. At the very moment the House was voting on his impeachment, the president held a rally in Amash’s district.
Did the media check voter opinion in the supposedly “swing” districts? Did they explore whether Brindisi and those like him had tapped into a swing of their district’s voters against Trump? Such a switch could provide hints about the 2020 presidential election.
To write off the House votes as purely partisan devalues the Trump impeachment, only the third such action in American history. What about the examples of Brindisi, Van Drew and Golden?
As for Brindisi’s district, the Almanac of American Politics reports: “Politically this area had been Republican since the party came into existence in the 1850s.” Yet Democrat Brindisi won in 2018.
Perhaps he detected change or, even better, had the courage to force change at some political risk to himself. If he did that, he would deserve praise, not merely being dismissed as partisan.
Van Drew may well have ended his congressional career. He will face well-financed competition in the GOP primary and Democrats angry with what they see as his betrayal. He had to understand this when he voted.
Golden says his split vote was a matter of conscience. He agreed that Trump had abused his powers but believes the courts should decide if Trump had the right to instruct executive agencies not to provide witnesses or documents.
His decision was more a matter of judgment than of conscience. In the Nixon and Clinton impeachment cases, the Supreme Court ruled unanimously against presidential claims of executive privilege.
President Washington said that executive privilege falls in cases of impeachment. But Golden apparently believes each president on the brink of impeachment should have his day in court – even on the same issue.
If there is a question of conscience, it must be rooted in Golden’s belief that, even on matters relating to impeachment, which the Constitution makes an exclusive power of the House, the courts have the last word.
His critics might claim Golden split his vote in an attempt to please both sides. That assertion would play right into the easy cynicism of pundits who say impeachment was a purely partisan exercise. For some members at least, it was just as likely to have been a matter of judgment.
The decisions of the 31 could have been based on more than partisanship. They deserve respect for their judgment, whatever it might be. That deference would enhance the historic significance of the impeachment itself.