Jennifer Rubin: Most Senate Republicans lack the courage to defy Trump

UNITED STATES - SEPTEMBER 13: Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, attends a markup of the Senate Judiciary Committee in Dirksen Building on September 13, 2018, where Republicans voted to move the committee vote on Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh to September 20. (Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call) (CQ Roll Call via AP Images)

As of this writing only four Senate Republicans — Susan Collins of Maine, Thom Tillis of North Carolina, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and Rand Paul of Kentucky — have agreed to support the resolution ending President Donald Trump’s fraudulent emergency declaration.

Tillis and Collins are up for re-election in 2020 in purple states, and Murkowski has been the least sycophantic Republican on major votes (e.g., repeal of Obamacare, confirmation of Justice Brett Kavanaugh). Only Rand Paul in this group would be described as a solid conservative who has supported Trump regularly on policy but here takes a principled stance based on constitutional principles.

Oh sure, there are many more Republicans harrumphing and mumbling about being “uncomfortable” with a blatant power grab — including staunch, self-proclaimed constitutional conservatives such as Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., and moderates such as Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn. It remains unclear whether there will be any other votes to defend the Senate’s core legislative function. (The New York Times reported, “Senators Marco Rubio of Florida, Ted Cruz of Texas, and Mike Lee of Utah have all voiced concern on the constitutional question, though none of them has explicitly promised to overturn the emergency declaration.”) Now Cruz was just reelected, but with nearly six years before facing the electorate he’s skedaddled whenever reporters pressed him for an answer. In fact, of the five I just listed, only Inhofe would possibly be on the ballot in 2020.

It’s possible the fourth “no” vote from Paul will allow others to step forward. I’d like to think every Republican senator I’ve mentioned and more who should know better will follow Paul, but the majority, maybe the overwhelming majority, of Republicans will — as they have on virtually everything else — stick with Trump.

Why do Republicans, even ones in safe seats and ones not facing the voters for years, shed any semblance of principle to show mindless fidelity to Trump?

It still amazes some voters. It shouldn't. These are not political giants; you'll find no Sen. J. William Fulbright or Hubert Humphrey in this crowd. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., died in 2018, the last lawmaker distinguished by his consistent refusal to put party above country and by his contempt for spineless courtiers. The Republicans who populate the Senate cannot imagine losing their perch; they live in fear of becoming politically irrelevant. They fear the wrath of the entire right-wing machine, which includes Trump, Fox News, radio talk show hosts, right-wing billionaire donors, utterly corrupt evangelical conservative leaders and intellectually hypocritical think tankers.

Such lawmakers will do just about anything to stay in the right wing's good graces, which they perceive as essential to their retention of power. Some like Rubio had brushes with heresy (e.g., on immigration) but now have returned to servility.

The overwhelming number of Republicans do not believe they can defend themselves if they were to act independently — or fear even risking it. They generally know what Trump is saying is bunk (whether it is Trump’s latest conspiracy theory about the FBI or some uber-theory of executive power or his fearmongering about immigrants), but they understand Trump’s grip on the base and figure it’s easier to echo Trump, snow voters whom they consider incapable of independent thought and just regurgitate the same garbage Trump spews.

Maybe Paul will shame a few into supporting the resolution. However, I fear Eliot Cohen is on the money when he writes in The Atlantic:

"They know, in their timid breasts, that they would have howled with indignation if Barack Obama had declared a national emergency in such a circumstance. As they stare at their coffee cup at breakfast, the thought occurs to them that a future left-wing president could make dangerous use of these same powers-because Speaker Nancy Pelosi rubbed that fact in their face. Some of the brighter ones might even realize that emergency powers are a favored tool of authoritarians everywhere.

"But they are afraid. They are afraid of being primaried. They are afraid of being called out by the bully whom they secretly despise but to whom they pledge public fealty. They are afraid of having to find another occupation than serving in elective office. And the most conceited of the lot-and there are quite a few of those, perhaps more in the Senate than in the House-think that it would be a tragedy if the country no longer had their service at its disposal."

You can call such pols them overly ambitious, but I wish their ambition was much grander. If only they yearned to make history, to walk in McCain’s footsteps, they might get a line in the history books. Unfortunately, if they are remembered at all, it will be for their docility in the face of an authoritarian president and for their willingness to disregard their oaths for the security of another term or a gig on Fox News after retirement or a cheesy award from some right-wing group. These are cheap dates and small men.

Jennifer Rubin | The Washington Post

Jennifer Rubin writes reported opinion for The Washington Post.