Lib­er­als want Repub­li­cans not to be Repub­li­cans

The Denver Post - - OPINION - By Ramesh Pon­nuru

Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump’s crit­ics view Repub­li­can con­gress­men as his en­ablers. James Fal­lows, in the At­lantic, de­scribes their be­hav­ior as the most dis­cour­ag­ing weak­ness our gov­ern­ing sys­tem has shown since Trump took of­fice. He sin­gles out Ne­braska Sen. Ben Sasse for scorn be­cause “he leads all sen­a­tors in his thought­ful, schol­arly ‘con­cern’ about the norms Don­ald Trump is break­ing — and then lines up and votes with Trump 95 per­cent of the time.”

An­other jour­nal­ist, Ron Brown­stein, has writ­ten sim­i­larly. When var­i­ous Repub­li­can sen­a­tors ob­jected to Trump’s at­tacks on MSNBC co-host Mika Brzezin­ski’s ap­pear­ance, Brown­stein asked what they in­tended to do about it. Other Trump foes echoed this cri­tique: The Repub­li­cans’ stern words were empty.

Most of this crit­i­cism is un­rea­son­able.

It fails, for one thing, to ac­count for what the Repub­li­cans have done. That in­cludes “mere” crit­i­cism, since words mat­ter in pol­i­tics. Some of those words — such as “we need to look to an in­de­pen­dent com­mis­sion or spe­cial pros­e­cu­tor” (Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski) or “our in­tel­li­gence com­mit­tee needs to in­ter­view” Don­ald Trump Jr. (Maine Sen. Su­san Collins) — can have a fairly di­rect ef­fect on what hap­pens in Wash­ing­ton.

But it’s not just words. The Repub­li­can Congress held hear­ings about Trump’s fir­ing of FBI Di­rec­tor James Comey. Most Repub­li­cans have sup­ported sanc­tions on Rus­sia the pres­i­dent op­poses.

For the Repub­li­cans’ crit­ics, these steps were the least they could do. But they weren’t. The Repub­li­cans could have, for ex­am­ple, not held hear­ings.

It’s un­usual for sen­a­tors to hold hear­ings into pos­si­ble mis­con­duct by 1) a pres­i­dent of their party 2) who is still fairly new in of­fice and 3) sup­ported by the vast ma­jor­ity of their vot­ers. Per­haps the Repub­li­cans should have taken even more ex­tra­or­di­nary ac­tion. But they’re fall­ing piti­fully short only if the base­line ex­pec­ta­tion is that they do what­ever lib­eral jour­nal­ists think it’s their duty to do.

And some things lib­eral jour­nal­ists think it’s the Repub­li­cans’ duty to do make no sense. Take that 95 per­cent fig­ure men­tioned by Fal­lows.

Was South Carolina Sen. Lind­sey Gra­ham re­ally sup­posed to vote to keep reg­u­la­tions he con­sid­ered un­wise on the books be­cause he op­poses Vladimir Putin? Was Ari­zona Sen. John Mc­Cain re­ally sup­posed to vote against con­firm­ing Alex Acosta as la­bor sec­re­tary be­cause the pres­i­dent tweets like a mal­ad­justed 12-year-old?

When you com­plain about how of­ten the sen­a­tors vote with the pres­i­dent, that’s what you’re say­ing. Per­haps this is why the com­plaint is usu­ally made by lib­er­als, who would not want sen­a­tors to be vot­ing with Pres­i­dent Marco Ru­bio or Pres­i­dent John Ka­sich ei­ther.

Be­sides vot­ing left, what would the Repub­li­cans’ crit­ics have them do? Im­peach the pres­i­dent? Not even Nancy Pelosi, the House Demo­cratic leader, sup­ports that.

Maybe Repub­li­cans should sub­poena some peo­ple they have not, al­though some speci­ficity on who should get these sub­poe­nas would be re­as­sur­ing. I sus­pect that if the Repub­li­cans did is­sue more of them, the goal­posts would just shift. The sub­poe­nas, like the Comey hear­ings, would turn out not to count as “ur­gent ac­tion.”

None of this means that Repub­li­cans are do­ing all they can and should do to ad­dress the con­cerns that Trump’s pres­i­dency raises. Con­gress­men should, for ex­am­ple, be look­ing for ways to com­pel pres­i­dents to dis­close their tax records, such dis­clo­sure be­ing a use­ful norm that Trump has flouted.

But mak­ing a fo­cused and rea­son­able de­mand and then build­ing sup­port for it is dif­fer­ent from ex­pect­ing con­gres­sional Repub­li­cans to sound like the op­po­si­tion party.

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