I’ve spent the past five days glued to the impeachment hearings, an event with an obvious conclusion before it ever began. It’s no surprise that Donald Trump was found not guilty by the Senate; for me what was the most significant moment happened after the vote, namely the concluding speech by Minority Leader Mitch McConnell.
If you recall, King Solomon was presented with conflicting claims of motherhood over a baby, and his proposed solution was to cut the baby in half, knowing that the real mother would rather give up her child than see it mortally divided. Once he had voted not guilty along with 42 other members of the GOP, and faced with the decline of GOP power, McConnell imposed his Solomonic Solution and effectively cut the GOP baby in half. Offering a closing argument that in its condemnation of Trump nearly exceeded that offered by the House Impeachment Managers in its denunciation of Trump’s role in the January 6th insurrection, McConnell firmly declared himself on one side of the GOP, and not the Trump side.
McConnell’s motivations stem from his decades of time in the Senate, and his firm footing as an institutionalist. America’s institutions are the bedrock of the mechanism of democracy, along with all its faults and imperfections. That mechanism relies upon the imposition of specific forms on its conduct, whether executive, congressional or judicial. All three branches of government – it’s institutions – rely on particular forms of language and rules. It is institutional language and rules that stand between the democratic process of governing and political opponents physically “beating the shit” out of each other.
Decorum and parliamentary procedure play an instrumental role in Senate functioning, essentially dictating the conduct, language and comportment of its members. McConnell is a past master of both disciplines and wields that masterful talent ruthlessly. In the past, he announced his intention to make the Obama Administration a “failed Presidency,” and used parliamentary procedure to do so, with the aim of dissatisfying a large block of American voters by preventing any benefits of Obama’s initiatives. In this way, McConnell has been a fierce partisan, but he never broke decorum in the ways exhibited by other party leaders like Newt Gingrich. McConnell never called the Democrats evil, he just rendered them legislatively impotent.
His actions have now effectively accomplished two results. Firstly, he has explicitly divided the GOP into two distinct factions, knowing that although only seven Republicans joined the Democrats in voting for an impeachment conviction, probably more than half of the GOP senators revile Trump. Secondly, he almost joyously tossed Donald Trump onto the judicial docket, declaring that Trump had not been called to justice “yet.” As to the division of the GOP, it now remains to be seen in what ways this division will manifest.
I’m sure McConnell hopes his “divide the baby” solution will effectively satisfy both factions, but it remains possible that Republican centrists and institutionalists will unite to overcome any efforts by the Trump wing of the party. Time will tell. Meanwhile, for the time being – and it may be short – Democrats now have seven members of the GOP voting with them. McConnell, though he voted to acquit, has ethically sided with the Democrats on the matter of what’s acceptable and unacceptable behavior.
It appears that Trump’s challenges going forward will be in the courts, where rules of evidence and procedure are determined by judges and outcomes by juries. McConnell obviously relishes that prospect.