Addicted to Power, Allergic to Principle (a Dorf on Law classic)

Note to readers: Continuing our brief mid-summer break here on Dorf on Law, we offer this classic column from October 2016, during the last stages of the general election campaign.  In light of House Republicans' actions thus far in 2021, what I wrote about below is almost adorably innocent by comparison.  Sometimes, looking back provides a disquieting reality check.  -- Neil H. Buchanan
by Neil H. Buchanan
I have been doing everything possible not to write -- or even think -- about the new depths to which the Trump campaign has lowered this country.  What we now know about Donald Trump's actions, words, and attitudes toward women is somehow both shocking and completely unsurprising.  This is no longer about Trump being the most unqualified candidate ever to run for the presidency.  This is about human decency.

A lot of Republicans know this.  It is hard to believe that it took the most recent outrage to convince some people to give up on Trump, but better late than never.  There was, at last, a panicked stampede to the exits immediately after we first saw the video in which Trump bragged about being able to sexually assault women.

The problem is that many Republican officials remained in Trump's corner, and some of those who joined the initial stampede have actually doubled back.  Watching those returnees squirm is something to behold.  My favorite line, from Nebraska's Senator Deb Fischer, is that even though she called on Trump to step aside for the good of the country, he ignored her advice.  So she still supports him.  Another profile in courage.

Even those who are standing firm (so far) in not supporting Trump continue to say that they will not support Hillary Clinton.  John McCain, for example, finally gave up on Trump last weekend, but he then ruled out supporting his former Senate colleague for the presidency.

Back in August, after an earlier barrage of Trumpian ugliness, Maine's Republican Senator Susan Collins announced that she would not support Trump.  But she, too, does not support Clinton.  Why not?  This is an important question, because Collins is already on the record as saying that Clinton is "clearly qualified to be president," so it would seem that Collins cannot claim that neither candidate passes muster.

Gail Collins, the op-ed columnist for The New York Times (who is unrelated to Senator Collins) wrote at the time that it was important to understand just how cowardly this stance is.  She also noted that Collins's explanation was beyond silly, with the senator accusing Hillary Clinton of making "[p]romises of free this and free that, that I believe would bankrupt our country."

Although Senator Collins certainly deserved to be mocked, her statement was not actually a surprise.  It has long been obvious that she is not the reasonable moderate that the press believes her to be, especially on economic matters.

Most notably, during the negotiations over the 2009 federal anti-recession stimulus bill, Senator Collins joined with two colleagues to withhold their votes until the Democrats agreed to cut some of the funding for education from the bill.

Education?  Yes, it was important to keep the deficit down, these visionaries said, because they believe (wrongly, especially for debt that is incurred because of spending during a recession) that debt creates an unconscionable burden on future generations.  And how best to protect the interests of those future generations?  By spending less money on their educations, of course.

Today, Hillary Clinton is supporting universal early childhood education, and she has laid out a plan to allow middle- and lower-income students to attend college without taking on crippling levels of debt.  Moreover, she has detailed exactly how this will be financed, mostly by attacking inequality through progressive tax increases.

But Susan Collins says that this will "bankrupt our country."  I have always assumed that she is smarter than that, but maybe not.

In any case, Collins is certainly not the only Republican officeholder who indirectly supports Trump by not supporting Clinton; and there are plenty of other Republicans who never abandoned Trump at all.  What are their excuses?

During the second presidential debate, Trump famously said that if he were president, Clinton would be in jail.  Ignoring his own campaign manager's post-debate spin that his incendiary statement should not be taken literally, Trump then spent the week whipping his supporters into a frothing rage over Clinton's supposed criminal liability.

Based on comments from Trump's voters, on internet boards as well as at rallies, they now believe that the case against Clinton is so strong that she should be in jail right now. 

John Dean's new column on Verdict, however, points out that the standard Republican case against Clinton does not even include specific claims about what law or laws she might have broken.  Former federal prosecutor Chris Christie's infamous Republican National Convention speech, which included claims that she was "guilty" of one thing after another, was deliberately vague about the content of any potential criminal complaint.

Trump's current favorite line is that Clinton "acid washed" 33,000 emails even after a subpoena had been issued.  As with nearly everything else that Trump has said during the presidential debates (and in every other public appearance), that is simply not true.  Here is what the fact-checkers for The New York Times wrote about Trump's claim:
Mrs. Clinton's aides did indeed delete about 33,000 emails from her private server, emails that she said were “personal” in nature. The FBI, however, indicated that many of the deleted emails may in fact have been related to her work at the State Department.

Days after the New York Times first disclosed Mrs. Clinton's use of a private email system in March 2015, the House committee investigating the 2012 attacks in Benghazi, Libya, asked that her emails be preserved and subpoenaed those that were related to the attacks.

But about three weeks later, an unidentified computer specialist realized that he had not destroyed an archive of emails that was supposed to have been deleted a year earlier, according to the F.B.I. report. The specialist then used a program known as BleachBit to delete an unknown number of emails, the FBI said.

Mrs. Clinton told FBI investigators that she was unaware that the aide had deleted the emails. The FBI did not find evidence to contradict that assertion.
As an aside, it is rather astonishing that The Times somehow labeled Trump's claim as "mostly true."  The FBI says that some of the emails "may" have been work-related.  The subpoena, in any event, was not for emails "related to her work" but specifically for Benghazi-related emails.  In addition, Clinton or her aides authorized the deletions long before the subpoena was issued.

Yet, in a fact-checking article in which The Times issued verdicts for other assertions like "mostly misleading" and "more questions than answers," this Trump claim is deemed "mostly true"?  The fact-checkers for The Times are nonpartisan, but Republicans have long claimed that that newspaper is biased against them.  Maybe this is overcompensation.

In any case, the Republican politicians who claim that they cannot support Clinton because she is a criminal who should go to prison cannot back up those claims.  And if those who have abandoned Trump really think that Clinton is a criminal, and that her crimes would make her a worse choice to be president than even Donald Trump, why are they not supporting him?  "They're both bad" is not an answer.  One of them will be president.  Which one do you support?

We have, therefore, now reached a final crossroads.  Unfortunately, the bizarre dance of the past week, with Republicans repudiating and un-repudiating Trump, and others pretending that they can stand aside entirely, has been driven in large part by political cowardice.

To be clear, Republicans who abandon Trump apparently do come in for serious verbal and online abuse from Trump and his supporters.  Trump has specifically gone after Senator McCain and House Speaker Paul Ryan, and no one is safe when Trump goes on the attack.

That must surely be unpleasant, but let us think for a moment about the choices facing a Republican who understands how terrible Trump would be, and who knows (but will not say so out loud) that Clinton is qualified to be president and has been unfairly attacked for decades.  What can such a politician do?

Why not stand for something?  I do not mean this in some abstract sense, and I know how very serious it is to ask someone else to risk his or her job.  Even so, there are worse things than losing elections.  And frankly, no one in either house of Congress will starve if they have to leave office.

Susan Collins is about to turn 64 years old, and she is completing her twentieth year in the Senate.  I have no doubt that she would like to continue to serve.  I also have little doubt that she could win her next election in 2020, but maybe she really will be punished by voters at that time.

Even so, how addicted to power must a person be to show such complete aversion to taking a chance?  The country and the world might be at risk, but people like Collins are unwilling to gamble on losing their jobs over it.

Senator McCain is in an even less defensible position.  Yes, he is actually up for reelection this year, and he might well lose if he backs Clinton.  On the other hand, he is now eighty years old and is finishing his thirtieth year in the U.S. Senate.  He sacrificed and suffered horribly as a young man for this country.  It is a shame to see the way he has contorted himself during this campaign.

I am focusing on Collins and McCain not because they are the only ones making indefensible statements about the election, but because they are so obviously embarrassing themselves by trying to pretend that Hillary Clinton's supposed drawbacks are in any way equivalent to Donald Trump's manifest unacceptability to be president.  One might hope that they could see that leaving the Senate a bit earlier than planned might be something worth doing, given the stakes.

Some Republicans, of course, simply agree with Trump.  They will have to face judgment of a different sort some day.  But the people who are perhaps most fascinating are those who will not repudiate Trump, much less endorse Clinton, all the while claiming that they find Trump "troubling."

The poster child for this kind of spinelessness is, of course, Paul Ryan.  He could move into private life easily, following his former "young turk" colleague Eric Cantor into a lucrative early political retirement.  Ryan's ambitions, however, appear to be less careerist -- although there is clearly a lot of that at work here -- and more about pure ideology.

Ryan said after the latest Trump outrage that he hopes that Trump "works to demonstrate to the country that he has greater respect for women than this clip suggests," which simply means that he is waiting for Trump not to be Trump.  Ryan's subsequent decision to focus on congressional races sounded like a big deal, but he did not withdraw his endorsement of Trump even then.

Ryan has a long-term agenda, trying to privatize Medicare and Social Security and cut taxes for the wealthy, while supporting all of the other elements of the right-wing wish list.  (He is, on social policy, in the same camp as Mike Pence.)  The man who lied his way through the 2012 campaign is the same person today.

Ryan has decided that this agenda is more important than the clear and present danger that is Trump.  Trump is useful to Ryan, especially because Ryan has announced that he plans to abuse the rules of the House to steamroll all opposition to his legislative agenda.  But that requires having a Republican in the White House, so Ryan is on board with having Trump be that guy.

And if Trump plays footsie with Russia, or starts a nuclear war in the midst of a tantrum?  Well, Ryan says, Clinton is worse.  Which means that Ryan's pet spending cuts and upward redistribution of wealth are so important to him and his backers that they cannot even wait for four years, during which time they could try to limit Clinton's actions and then find a candidate in 2020 who is not Trump.

A friend asked me earlier this year: Where is today's Franklin Delano Roosevelt?  Where is Winston Churchill when we need him?  Those men are historically unique examples, but today's challenges are potentially as momentous as the threats that the world faced in the middle of the twentieth century.

Do we really have so few people who are willing to look around and say that some things matter more than partisan advantage?  I am not asking any of them to lead us through a world war.  I would just ask them to take a tiny career risk to prevent the next one.

Every Republican is now facing a fateful choice.  Many of them surely have been nurturing dreams for many years of higher office.  But none of them will lack for work if they leave public life, and all of them can stand on the right side of history with very little personally at stake.  What will they choose to do?