I always thought the Willie Horton controversy was painfully simple where it mattered for politics even if the underlying issues were somewhat murky. A man had committed a murder and been sentenced to life without parole. Then, for some reason, he was granted a weekend furlough from which he did not return, after which he went on crime spree that included assault, armed robbery and rape.
Now, someone could try to explain why people who were not eligible for parole in their lifetime were eligible for a weekend furlough system, but no one wanted to defend the result in Horton’s case.
This is how I think about Donald Trump’s Senate acquittal in his impeachment trial.
Everyone responsible for letting Trump off the hook is now saddled with the results of everything he does for the remainder of his life. Yes, I include even acts he takes when he’s an ordinary citizen again after he leaves office. History will look at his entire biography when it renders its verdict on his impeachment jurors.
Of course, Trump is in the process of trying to mold that history right now, as Philip Rucker explains in the Washington Post.
Seven months after [Robert] Mueller’s marathon testimony brought finality to the Russia investigation, Trump is actively seeking to rewrite the narrative that had been meticulously documented by federal law enforcement and intelligence officials, both for immediate political gain and for history.
Turbocharged by his acquittal in the Senate’s impeachment trial and confident that he has acquired the fealty of nearly every Republican in Congress, Trump is claiming vindication and exoneration not only over his conduct with Ukraine — for which the House voted to impeach him — but also from the other investigations that have dogged his presidency.
I was struck by the phrase: “confident that he has acquired the fealty of nearly every Republican in Congress.”
I don’t know if “fealty” is how I would describe the situation, but every Republican in Congress other than Mitt Romney is invested in Trump’s future performance, because they’re all responsible now for him being in a position to act. The worse he behaves and the more disastrous the outcomes, the more severe will be the impact on the legacies of his enablers.
Even if they were to reverse course and vote to remove Trump in a second impeachment trial, they’d still be liable for not having done so at the first opportunity. For this reason, congressional Republicans are invested in Trump’s success in an extraordinary way. It’s not just that need him to be perform well in the upcoming election to protect their own performance on the same ballot. They need their faith in him to be vindicated so that their entire careers aren’t besmirched by their impeachment votes.
Trump’s congressional allies have always been reluctant to criticize him, but now every criticism is an indictment of their own conduct in allowing him to remain president. And that creates a kind of “fealty.”
Michael Dukakis discovered something similar. The Republicans successfully argued that, having let Willie Horton go, Dukakis was responsible for whatever Horton did thereafter. They also argued that the soft-on-crime mindset that enabled Horton’s escape was indicative of what Dukakis would do as president.
People can quibble about this by focusing on the merits of the furlough system and its overall record, or by emphasizing the nakedly racist way in which the Republicans packaged and turbocharged their message. They can question how responsible Dukakis really was for this single case, or what it truly portended for a Dukakis administration. But, on the strict politics, it was an incredibly effective attack. The furlough system had a giant weakness, which was that its architects were dependent on people with life sentences voluntarily returning to prison. If they did not, they were responsible for any crimes committed on the outside.
The congressional Republicans are all Michael Dukakis now.