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On Mitt and Mike: Statesmanship and the party of the angels

Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, arrives on Capitol Hill, Monday, Feb. 3, 2020 in Washington.
Alex Brandon, Associated Press

Partisan ugliness has never been more apparent than in the polarity of reactions to Sen. Mitt Romney’s vote to convict President Trump of “abuse of power.” Almost everyone deplores the reaction — of the other side. Unfortunately, we do not rise above party by deploring the partisanship of those we despise. The blindest and most thorough partisans are those who reassure each other that they operate far above partisan passions: the party of the angels. Would you rather argue with someone who knows he is taking a position that must be defended, or someone who has identified his side with righteousness itself? In a democracy, the alternative to vicious partisanship is not some angelic nonpartisanship, but wise and moderate partisanship, a willingness to take a side tempered by awareness that there will always be another side that has its points and its arguments.

Sen. Romney’s invocation of his religious faith in explaining his vote to convict must be taken seriously by people of good will, and especially by those who share his faith. But his calling upon God to defend a controversial vote has not facilitated wise partisanship. To assess the senator’s rhetorical choices (“Search diligently, pray always, and be believing … inescapable conviction … oath before God”) we might try to imagine how those who were thrilled by his bold expressions of piety would have reacted had he used the same language in defending, say, his decision to abandon his long held (and, in Massachusetts, politically useful) “pro-choice” position on abortion. Surely the warnings of impending theocracy from our elite educational and media establishment would still be echoing today. Those who liked his recent vote would surely have liked it just fine (or maybe even better?) without the invocation of God. Sen. Romney is now a hero among those whose enemy he was just yesterday (and tomorrow?), earning reverent praise from the other teams’ pundits and anchors, and a standing ovation at the New Hampshire Democrat debate.

“Do what is right; let the consequence follow,” Sen. Romney bravely announced. Again, all who take the claims of morality seriously must respect the sentiment, even those of us who would not separate choosing the right from assessing the consequences. Still, the glory of braving the consequences should not distract us from the priority of first getting clear on what in fact the right choice is. The senator would have served us better as a statesman by putting the accent on the reasons for his choice and not on its supposedly nonpartisan and even divine nobility or sanctity.

To take political responsibility is to reckon with the inevitable fact of partisanship. Anyone really interested in making a difference for the better for our country must recognize the need to have political friends and to beware of enemies. To recognize the reality of allies and adversaries is not to debase political action but simply to reckon with the actual partisan situation. The question is whether Sen. Romney has frivolously spent his political capital (in Utah, especially) or wisely traded it in order to make some powerful new friends in the national political arena. But that latter calculation would only make sense if those who are now cheering for Romney are in fact reliable friends as the senator moves forward — and only if Romney shares enough vision with his new friends to make the trading in of old ones reasonable. In any case, it is hard not to question the otherworldly “profile in courage” of a political gesture that results in immediate celebrity among the great and powerful, if not among the more vulgar in Washington or in Utah.

Sen. Lindsey Graham hit the right note, I think, a note of sober and moderate partisanship, when he refused to vilify Romney’s religious gesture but questioned his commonsense. And the senior senator from Utah, Mike Lee, provided a telling contrast, not only in his vote, but in his explanation of it.

Foregoing any appeal to heaven, Sen. Lee deftly framed his decision in the context of the larger partisan conflict over the design and purpose of our constitutional republic. For decades, he explains, progressives have worked to overcome the limitations of federalism and the separation of powers by transferring more and more power to unelected “experts” forming a virtual fourth branch of government, the bureaucracy. Trump’s alleged constitutional offense, from the standpoint of progressive or “living” constitutionalism, consists precisely in overriding the authority of expert bodies or the prevailing “inter-agency consensus.” Lee is a frank partisan of the original Constitution and a critique of its progressive reinterpretation. True solicitude for the constitution thus dictates, he concludes, not righteous indignation at the president’s use of executive power, but the defense of his Article II powers against the increasing arrogance of the fourth branch.

Sen. Lee’s floor speech and vote to acquit are better examples of statesmanship than Sen. Romney’s leaping over constitutional reasoning — and its inherent partisanship — by appealing to some angelic moral uplift and righteous nonpartisanship. Mike Lee takes responsibility for sizing up the constitutional stakes of partisan conflict; he pays the other side the respect of acknowledging its constitutional vision. Utah’s senior senator forthrightly chooses against one partisan vision, the progressive one, a vision now supported by high-minded moral revulsion against the vulgar occupant of the executive office. And Sen. Lee provides reasons for supporting the party that is the only hope for an originalist understanding of the constitution.

Ralph Hancock is a professor of political science at Brigham Young University and president of the John Adams Center for the Study of Faith, Philosophy and Public Affairs. His opinions do not necessarily reflect those of BYU.