The Senate impeachment vote: Will there be any Republican ‘profiles in courage’?

The U.S. Senate votes on the rules to govern the trial as it begins the second impeachment trial of former U.S. President Donald Trump, on charges of inciting the deadly attack on the U.S. Capitol, on the floor of the Senate chamber on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S., February 9, 2021. U.S. Senate TV/Handout via Reuters

As the Senate nears its second vote on whether or not to convict former President Trump and bar him from holding future office, the outcome, in spite of a riveting prosecution and a chaotic defense, appears to be a foregone conclusion. Only a handful of Republican senators seem poised to vote to convict Trump, far short of the 17 Republicans that would be needed in addition to all the Democrats. So far speculation about which Republicans may join the Democrats is based on pure political calculus. Will senators who have announced their retirement such as Ohio’s Rob Portman (or who plan to retire but haven’t announced yet) feel free to vote for conviction? Will senators (like Louisiana’s Bill Cassidy) who recently won re-election and who therefore have six years to soothe the angry Trump supporters in their state vote for conviction?

Amidst the raw political conjecture, one possibility has been overshadowed—will there be any Republican senators who vote to convict because they think that for the good of the country we should be rid of Trump? Are there any senators who appreciate what House manager Ted Lieu (D-CA) argued in Thursday’s portion of the trial: Donald Trump could run again, lose, and repeat the events of January 6? Will there be any profiles in courage?

The term refers to a book by that name written by then-Senator and later President John F. Kennedy in 1956. In it he tells the story of eight United States senators, from different political parties and different regions of the country, who at one or more points in their career took a highly public stand which infuriated the voters in their political party or in their state. For many of these men, courage was its own reward. “The true democracy,” writes Kennedy, “ …puts faith in the people—faith that the people will not simply elect men who will represent their views ably and faithfully, but also elect men who will exercise their conscientious judgment…” [p. 264]. And for some of them, a courageous vote, one which brought about the fury of their constituents, did not end their political career at all.

For instance, when John Quincy Adams was a senator from Massachusetts he broke from his party—The Federalist Party—over the issue of retaliating against the British with an embargo that cut off international trade. His home state, a center of trading and shipping, was so furious at him that the legislature threw him out of the Senate a full nine months before the end of his term.[1] But in spite of that setback, Adams went on to win the presidency in 1824 and after that served in the House of Representatives until he died.

Sam Houston, one of the first two United States senators from Texas, was also dismissed from the Senate by his legislature whose members were furious over his votes for measures designed to preserve the union and prevent civil war. For his vote on the Kansas-Nebraska Act, Houston was denounced as a traitor. Nonetheless he stated, “It was the most unpopular vote I ever gave but the wisest and most patriotic” (p. 124). In spite of the fury directed at him Houston was returned to the Senate two years later, where he served until being elected Governor of Texas.

And Senator Lucius Lamar of Mississippi shocked the nation by giving a eulogy full of praise for radical republican Charles Sumner of Massachusetts. He also supported a series of measures which were anathema to his constituents in the fractious and dangerous years following the Civil War, often siding with the North. But he survived politically. He was re-elected to the Senate, and went on to be Secretary of the Interior and a justice of the Supreme Court. When he was under attack for his views he had this to say:

“The Liberty of this country and its great interests will never be secure if its public men become mere menials to do the biddings of their constituents instead of being representatives in the true sense of the word, looking to the lasting prosperity and future interests of the whole country” (p. 197).

As the Senate vote looms the big question is this: will there be any profiles in courage among Republican senators? Kennedy’s book from over half a century ago teaches us that there are more important things than winning re-election and that political courage does not always mean political failure.

[1] In those days state legislatures elected United States senators.