Hancen Sale

Late on a Thursday night, Senator Lamar Alexander was reading “Impeachment: An American History” as Democratic House impeachment managers and the presidential counsel made their final arguments. The national media had, for days, predicted the third Presidential impeachment trial in American history would hinge upon his vote.

“Wherever Alexander comes down,” a Politico report speculated, “is almost sure to be the majority position in the Senate.” And that’s precisely what happened.

Following hours of deliberation on the question of whether the Senate should issue subpoenas to multiple top White House officials, including former National Security Advisor John R. Bolton, Senator Alexander released a statement revealing his final position.

“There is no need for more evidence to prove something that has already been proven,” Alexander said.

"It was inappropriate for the President to ask a foreign leader to investigate his political opponent and to withhold United States aid to encourage that investigation. … But the Constitution does not give the Senate the power to remove the President from office and ban him from this year's ballot simply for actions that are inappropriate."

Thus, Alexander provided a crucial “no” vote, meaning President Trump’s impeachment trial would be the first in American history to proceed without witnesses — all but ensuring his acquittal. But the statement released by Senator Alexander announced more than his position on a mere procedural vote: it was a stunning admission of guilt, setting a precedent that will reverberate throughout American history.

The statement and vote may prove to be the defining moment of Lamar Alexander’s career and a vote that could haunt American democracy for years to come for a variety of reasons.

Unlike most Republicans, Alexander explicitly affirmed the Democratic case. Donald Trump had, in fact, pressured a foreign government to investigate his political opponent, Alexander relented, and further withheld federal aid to encourage that investigation. But, in his analysis, Alexander concluded that President Trump’s actions — which amount to no less than extorting a foreign government for solely personal gain—were merely inappropriate.

This notion of presidential power—how to deploy it and justify its use — is at the very heart of American governance.

The United States was conceived as a representative democracy — where the ultimate “power of the people” is vested in elected officials. This hybrid form of government was intended to mold together the efficiencies of monarchy and voices of direct democracy into one delicately balanced system. The logic makes sense. While pure monarchies allow for efficiency and direct democracies for self-determination, both lack guardrails.

However, as many prolific thinkers and historians note, even representative democracy is not without its limitations.

Channeling the inherent frailty of institutionalized government, the political philosopher J.S. Mill recognized that structure alone is deficient, writing that “the political morality of the country is what we must look to if we [are to] know in whom the really supreme power in the Constitution resides.” In other words, power is defined by its circumstances and linked to the context in which it exists.

James Bryce, a British historian and author of the nineteenth-century classic The American Commonwealth, went further by linking the idea of power determined by circumstance to presidential power, issuing warning about the dangers of a malign President with a broad and energized base. “A bold President who knew himself to be supported by a majority in the country, might be tempted to override the law,” Bryce wrote. “He might be a tyrant, not against the masses, but with the masses.”

Sadly, the warning proved prescient.

In a written statement, the once-heralded Senator Lamar Alexander quietly admitted what millions of Americans still believe never happened — in part, because the full breadth of evidence is locked behind his vote to forbid additional witnesses. He quietly admitted that extorting a foreign government, in an attempt to game the electoral process, is merely inappropriate. He quietly admitted that political expediency trumps precedence. He quietly admitted that another branch of government’s “shoddy” and “incomplete” processes is a license to do the same.

Thus, President Trump was acquitted of crimes for which he is guilty on account of political leaders unable — and many unwilling — to find courage in the face of political pressure. Only one Republican refused to excuse the ills before them and fully grapple with the implications of Trump's transgressions: Senator Mitt Romney.

"We are all footnotes at best in the annals of history,” Romney proclaimed in a speech from the Senate floor. “But in the most powerful nation on earth, the nation conceived in liberty and justice, that is distinction enough for any citizen."

After casting his vote to convict the President, there is no doubt Romney will find himself in the footnotes of American history — a footnote describing an act of moral courage in a town, and in a nation, where moral courage is direly lacking.

Lamar Alexander failed to find that same courage, revealing a willingness to acquiesce to the demands of political tribalism, to the detriment of America and his own legacy.

“Those who stand for nothing,” Alexander Hamilton once wrote, “fall for everything.”

Hancen Sale is a senior majoring in economics. He can be reached athsale@vols.utk.edu, and you can follow him on Twitter @hancen4sale.

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