To convict or not to convict?

The current congressional holiday recess gives the nation both a respite from the immediacy of President Trump’s impeachment and an opportunity to assess broader aspects of the situation.

One of those aspects, at least for me, is to consider the many pressures bearing down on members of Congress.

Trump at present is the unquestioned leader of the Republican Party. Nearly all Republicans feel compelled to bow the knee to him, or face a primary election challenge within their own party. 

The flip side is the expectation among Democrats that their members of Congress should vote to impeach Trump in the House and vote to convict him in the Senate. Those who do otherwise will likely face primary opposition back home, unless they happen to represent a deep red district or state.

Because that’s politics in America today, it’s impossible to know — really KNOW — whether a Republican vote for Trump is one of considered judgment or one cast from political fear. The same goes for Democrats who oppose him.

Three Democrats in the House voted against impeachment of Trump on at least one article, and one former Republican, now an independent, voted to impeach him. All the others lined up with their party’s position. 

Iowa’s four House members — three Democrats and one Republican — voted with their respective parties.

We will see next November how their constituents regard their decision.

In January, after the holiday break, all eyes will be on the Senate, which will conduct the trial on whether to convict the president. With 53 Republicans among the 100 senators, and the Constitution requiring a two-thirds Senate vote to convict, no one expects conviction to result.

The more intriguing question is how many senators, if any, will break ranks with their party, and who those might be.

Iowa’s senators, Joni Ernst and Chuck Grassley, have not publicly declared their intentions, although they have hinted what they think of the matter. The vast majority of observers expect both to vote against conviction of the president, since both are Republicans.

From a political standpoint it will inevitably be a dicey vote for both Iowa senators. The state’s voters appear pretty evenly divided on whether Trump’s behavior demands his conviction. 

Ernst is up for re-election in November. 

Iowa voters are divided roughly into three equal parts politically, with about a third registered as Republicans, a third registered as Democrats and a third registered with no party affiliation (sometimes called “independents”). There are currently slightly more Republicans than Democrats in Iowa, but “no party” has more registrants than does either party.

Independents broke for Ernst over Democrat Bruce Braley in 2014, giving Ernst the victory. If enough Iowa independents think Trump should be convicted and removed from office, they will not approve of Ernst’s decision if she votes, as most observers expect, not to convict him. 

Would a big chunk of independent voters then support her Democratic opponent in November? 

As for Grassley, many eyes will be on him especially because of his votes on President Bill Clinton’s impeachment trial in the Senate in 1999. 

Clinton was impeached in the U.S. House on two articles: lying to a grand jury and obstruction of justice. When the trial was held in the Senate, Grassley voted to convict Clinton on both counts. Neither count received a simple majority vote for conviction, much less the required two-thirds majority.

If Grassley votes to acquit Trump in the Senate, he can expect to be asked why he decided to do so when he had voted to convict Clinton 20 years earlier. 

Many observers think the actions for which the House impeached Trump are more serious for the nation than what the House impeached Clinton for in 1999. Grassley will need to consider that distinction if he votes this time to support Trump.

Both Ernst and Grassley are currently members of the Senate Judiciary Committee, of which Grassley is the immediate past chair. In that capacity they bear a special responsibility, since impeachment is a weighty judicial matter. 

No matter what they decide, both Iowa senators will need to convince their constituents that they made their decision for proper reasons, not just a knee-jerk action based on political fear.

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