"Now is the time that tries men's souls." Thomas Paine wrote these words in 1776, during America's revolution against England. His words — extended to women — also apply to today's United States, given the serious charges being levied against President Donald Trump for his overtures to the president of Ukraine.
A long American tradition prioritized loyalty to country over loyalty to a political party. People felt that partisanship must stop at the national border and that foreign policy should be strictly bi-partisan.
A famous saying, attributed to Patrick Henry, seemed to suggest otherwise, "Now is the time for all good men to come to the aid of their party."
But this was originally intended, not as a political recommendation, but as an exercise for typing students. Perhaps we should bring it up to date: "Now is the time for all good men and women to come to the aid of their country."
But in a democracy, what if coming to the aid of their country undermines a legislator's desire to get re-elected?
On the one hand, democracy presumes that leaders are sensitive to public opinion.
On the other hand, alert political leaders have time and opportunity to see dangers in policies that are popular with their constituents, who cannot devote full time to public affairs
English House of Commons member Edmund Burke voted in 1778 to end restrictions on Irish free trade. His vote was extremely unpopular among his own constituents. Their English port of Bristol previously had more business because of the restrictions on Ireland that he voted to abolish. His vote ended his political career, as he knew it would.
Burke commented that if he lost the next election because of this vote, " . . . it will stand on record an example to future representatives of the Commons of England, that one man at least had dared to resist the desires of his constituents when his judgment assured him they were wrong."
His notable example was indeed followed recently.
Twenty Conservative Party members of the House of Commons voted against Brexit policies advocated by Conservative Prime Minister Boris Johnson. In response, Johnson kicked all of them, including a grandson of Winston Churchill, out of the Conservative Party, thus ending their political careers.
One wonders how current American politicians stack up compared with their British cousins, and with their American predecessors. Republican president Richard Nixon resigned before he could be impeached for the Watergate scandal, after top Republican leaders told him that he would be convicted by the Senate.
Ukraine-gate is not merely a partisan Democratic attack on President Trump, although it may have some elements of that. Judge Andrew Napolitano, a senior legal analyst, has written a very persuasive explanation of why Mr. Trump's recently revealed actions are serious for the country as a whole and clearly impeachable.
But so far nearly all Republican members of Congress are following talking points supplied by the White House.
Is it likely that nearly all congressional Republicans think that President Trump has done nothing to warrant investigations and possible impeachment?
Former Republican senator Jeff Flake of Arizona, when asked if 30 Republican senators would vote to convict Donald Trump if he is impeached, recently replied that if they could vote with a secret ballot it would be more like 35.
Flake knows many of them personally.
But one can sympathize with Republican politicians' reluctance to defy Trump openly.
They know that if they do, he will encourage primary voters to replace them when they seek re-election. And they know that Trump's most militant supporters, although a minority of all Republicans, are the most likely to turn out for primary elections. If retaining their office is more important to them than taking care of the country they probably need to play along with the president.
But do they want to win re-election at any price?
The fundamental question is how many congressional Republicans will put country before party, and country before their own political careers, when push comes to shove.
The same question can be applied to congressional Democrats.
Many observers agree that Trump deserves to be impeached but fear that pressing forward with impeachment might increase his chances of re-election and threaten Democrat's attempt to retain the House and capture the Senate. Until lately, U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi agreed.
She may still believe this. If so, by changing her position and moving towards impeachment she is knowingly undermining her own party's interest. But Edmund Burke would have approved. Pelosi is putting her understanding of the welfare of the country above her loyalty to the Democratic party.
One question remains unanswered: Are current British legislators braver than ours?
Paul F. deLespinasse is Professor Emeritus of Political Science and Computer Science at Adrian College. He received his Ph.D. from Johns Hopkins University in 1966, and has been a National Merit Scholar, an NDEA Fellow, a Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and a Fellow in Law and Political Science at the Harvard Law School. His college textbook, "Thinking About Politics: American Government in Associational Perspective," was published in 1981 and his most recent book is "Beyond Capitalism: A Classless Society With (Mostly) Free Markets." His columns have appeared in newspapers in Michigan, Oregon, and a number of other states. To read more of his reports — Click Here Now.
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