Lamar Alexander takes a pass on his McCain moment

“I worked with other senators to make sure that we have the right to ask for more documents and witnesses,” Alexander said in a statement shortly after the trial recessed, “but there is no need for more evidence to prove something that has already been proven and that does not meet the United States Constitution’s high bar for an impeachable offense.”

The decision is a huge blow to Democrats — and not just because he was one of the few GOP senators open to witnesses. It’s also because he is retiring ahead of the 2020 election — a move that would ostensibly have given him more latitude to take a tough vote. He comes from a red state, yes, but he was also a vote Democrats desperately needed.

His announcement seems to indicate that the end of this is close. Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) is still weighing her decision. Sens Mitt Romney (R-Utah) and Susan Collins (R-Maine) have indicated that they will vote for witnesses. But Democrats very likely need a fourth vote — unless Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. elects to break a potential 50-50 tie.

Looming over Alexander’s decision was the fate of every other GOP member of Congress who has run afoul of Trump in recent years. When they have done so, they have often opted to leave elected office rather than try to explain their decisions to their fellow partisans. One of them, Rep. Justin Amash (I-Mich.), left the GOP. And they have often been attacked by Trump — in one case, even after his death.

Sen. John McCain’s (R-Ariz.) vote against the GOP’s replacement for Obamacare was as dramatic as it was significant. With the vote coming down to the wire, McCain made a bold statement by walking over and delivering his decisive “no” vote with a thumbs-down.

McCain at the time was fighting brain cancer, but Trump nonetheless repeatedly derided him. Even after McCain died and received a hero’s ceremony in the U.S. Capitol, Trump continued his attacks.

Trump has focused like a laser from Day One on keeping his base in line. At times, when he was particularly out of favor with the American public, it was basically all he had. But however gruesome the tactics have been — particularly in the case of McCain — there is little doubt that they have proven effective. Even GOP retirees and moderates have been reluctant to say what they apparently truly think about what Trump is up to.

Even before Alexander’s statement, Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) admitted that Trump’s tactics with GOP lawmakers had frightened them — indicating that he wasn’t optimistic about what lay ahead.

There is little doubt that someone like Alexander knew that voting in favor of Bolton — or even just witnesses, period — would have lined him up for a barrage of Trump criticism. Even as someone set to exit public life, he had to know the coda that might leave on his legacy in a red state like Tennessee and that it would have lasted long past his retirement date in January 2021.

Alexander is a respected longtime senator and former governor who stands to go down in Tennessee history. Even if he thought voting for new witnesses was the right thing to do, it’s only natural for a politician — someone from a line of work that rewards self-preservation and requires a constant eye on public opinion — to weigh the upsides and the downsides.

And that goes double in an impeachment process whose outcome isn’t in any real doubt. Even if Bolton testified, there is little question the Senate would fail to produce the two-thirds vote needed to remove Trump — something that would require as many as 20 Republicans.

Alexander notably signed on to a question that Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) asked House Democrats’ impeachment managers late Thursday night. The question included the premise that even Bolton’s testimony wouldn’t change the impeachment calculus “and that therefore, for this and other reasons, his testimony would add nothing to this case.”

The fact that Alexander was on the question was telling enough; the fact that Murkowski also signed on had to be even more defeating for Democrats. Murkowski signaled Thursday night that she’ll take a day to think about it.

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