Wouldn’t it be great to have a senator or representative in Congress whose primary motivation was the greater good, and who was indifferent to his or her own reelection? This politician would be animated by sympathy for the human condition, and leverage his capacities to legislate on behalf of his fellows without thought of personal aggrandizement.
Scanning the political landscape hoping to catch a glimpse of one of these rare creatures is a lonely endeavor populated more by shadows or perhaps apparitions, rather than authentic sightings.
In the Senate trial of President Trump, Republican senators made all sorts of intellectually specious arguments to avoid seeking documents and hearing from first hand witnesses who might have shed further light on the president’s apparent abuse of power and obstruction of justice.
When the deliberations were in the House, the president said he looked forward to the testimony of first hand witnesses such as Mick Mulvaney, John Bolton and Mike Pompeo in the Senate. So why the change when Republican senators might have heard testimony that exonerated the president or at the least, may have given the jurors some reason to doubt that he used his office to further his own political ambitions?
Come to think of it, if you were a senator wouldn’t you have liked to have read the full unabridged transcript of the Trump-Zelensky conversation that the National Security Council’s lawyers hid in a server reserved primarily for covert operations?
The inescapable conclusion why almost all Republican senators did not seek more information is they believed that revealing further details would almost certainly strengthen the case against Trump, rather than reveal any exculpatory evidence. Why then would our senators break their oath of office to protect the Constitution and abrogate their role in protecting our nation from executive overreach? One word: Power. Their power.
With the notable exception of Sen. Mitt Romney, Republican senators have been animated not by a search for truth or justice, nor by a desire to remain true to the Constitution or to maintain the health of our democratic system of checks and balances. No, as Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, has pointed out, Republican senators have been animated by fear, fear that if they don’t toe the party line, they might engender a storm of presidential tweets of disloyalty and attacks from talk radio and Fox News. They might even invite a primary challenger supported by the president. But that’s not all.
The resignation of President Nixon in August 1974 as a result of the Watergate scandal, and the subsequent Democratic electoral landslide in the November mid-term elections, showed our Republican senators what may have awaited them had they performed their constitutional duties in the Senate, and convicted Trump. Individual Republican senators feared that they would not be reelected, and the Republican Party feared that it would lose both the Senate and the presidency. Better to make the trial as short as possible, declare the trial a hoax, and prevent citizens from hearing for themselves from individuals who could clarify under oath exactly what Trump said.
Former Sen. Jeff Flake said earlier that if senators voted with a secret ballot, that is, without fear of electoral retribution, 75 of them would vote to convict Trump. Did many of our senators perjure themselves when they swore to be impartial jurors, as clearly many were not? Did Republican senators prioritize their electoral interests over the interests of the nation? Do our senators fully comprehend the long-term consequences to our democracy of acquitting a president who used the power of the United States in an attempt to corrupt the 2020 presidential election so that he could remain in power? The honest answers to these questions should distress any educated American.
Perhaps it’s pointless to dream of political unicorns. It may be that the typical 2020 political animal is incapable of putting his country’s needs ahead of his own or his party. While multiple proposals to change the rules of impeachment are currently circulating, maybe it’s time that we seriously consider a structural remedy to help reduce political selfishness and lust for power that addresses the players: term limits. Presidents are currently limited to two four-year terms. Why not limit senators to two six-year terms, and congressman to six two-year terms? Imagine how the Senate trial might have unfolded if senators weren’t worried about their next election.
Citizens must demand more selflessness and better accountability from our Congress to prevent the Trump administration’s continued erosion of the foundations of our democracy. Congress certainly won’t voluntarily vote for term limits, but let’s not lose sight of whom our Congress serves, and debate thoroughly how term limits might improve the resiliency and quality of our democracy.
Justin F. Thulin, M.D., is a dermatologist practicing in Salt Lake City.