Unless you were paying close attention, you might have missed one of the most illuminating moments so far in Donald Trump's impeachment saga.
During Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman's testimony Tuesday before House impeachment investigators, he said: "I realized that if Ukraine pursued an investigation into the Bidens and Burisma, it would likely be interpreted as a partisan play, which would undoubtedly result in Ukraine losing the bipartisan support it has thus far maintained. This would all undermine U.S. national security."
It is the second sentence that cuts. Vindman not only argued that Trump's crude and obvious quid pro quo was inappropriate. As a regional expert, Vindman was concerned that Trump's actions would weaken support for a frontline country resisting Russian aggression and thus compromise American security interests.
It was in this context that Ohio Sen. Rob Portman road tested a Republican response to impeachment. "I thought it was inappropriate for the president to ask a foreign government to investigate a political opponent," he said. "I also do not think it's an impeachable offense."
Portman is usually found in the more thoughtful portion of his tribe. But this answer conspicuously, even deceptively, ignores the issue at hand. A decision about impeachment not only involves the response to a specific act — say, a third-rate burglary. It necessarily entails a judgment about the fitness for high office of the actor. In Trump's case, the problem is not a slimy phone call in a lifetime of slimy phone calls. The problem is a president who puts his personal interests ahead of U.S.. national security. And who still finds nothing wrong with his "perfect" conversation. The corrupt act reveals a corrupt man, unable to make the most rudimentary judgments about the nation's good.
In the light of all this — against all my instincts — I am sinking into cynicism. If the best of the Republican Party is willing to make shallow, shoddy excuses for an unfit president, then the path ahead is disturbingly clear. The details of the case for impeachment, it seems, will not finally matter. Fearing the revolt of their base — and the retribution of an emotionally unstable president — Senate Republicans (with one admirable exception, Utah's Mitt Romney) have already chosen their final position: acquittal. And whatever is revealed in the course of the investigation — no matter how vomitous — will fall just short of an impeachable offense. The goal posts will move and move until they are in the next county. And tolerance for corruption in high places will continue to grow.
In an ideal world, senators would turn to political philosopher John Rawls for guidance. He proposed that judgments about justice should be conducted behind a “veil of ignorance” — as though we did not know the station in society we would inhabit. On this theory, Republican senators should ask: If I did not know whether the president
were a Republican or a Democrat, would his or her willingness to compromise national security for selfish political reasons demonstrate unfitness and justify conviction?
But almost no Republican senators, as far as I can tell, are operating behind the veil. Their verdict is predetermined by partisanship.
And I am cynical enough to believe that very few Democrats — if the situation were exactly reversed and a Democratic president were being judged for similar actions — would heroically resist their political incentives.
Only two eventualities might change Republican calculations on impeachment. First, the Republican base might turn against Trump in significant numbers. This is unlikely to the point of impossibility. No matter what the impeachment investigation reveals, Fox
News and conservative talk radio will produce an alternative narrative to which partisans can cling.
Even if this involves the defamation of patriots such as Vindman. Even if this involves conspiracy theories and massive revisions to reality.
Second, Americans outside the Republican base might turn against Trump so vigorously and completely that the political incentives for Republican officeholders begin to change. What does it profit senators to keep the base if they lose the rest of the electorate? Such a decisive shift in public sentiment also seems unlikely, but who knows what further ethical horrors a corruption investigation featuring Donald Trump and Rudy Giuliani might reveal?
There is, of course, another factor that might change. Republican senators could actually take the deliberative role of their institution seriously. They could recover a proper outrage at public corruption.
They could recall why they entered public service in the first place, and choose to pay the cost of conscience. I still want to believe this is possible. But I’m not holding my breath.
Michael Gerson served as President George W. Bush’s chief speechwriter from 2001-2006 and is a columnist for the Washington Post.