President Trump is officially acquitted, and Mitch McConnell hasn’t said much about it yet, but he’s clearly savoring a victory that has been more than a year in the making.
He may come to change his mind. His version of a trial with no evidence and no witnesses will certainly make him a hero to Trump’s base, and may go down as his second greatest career achievement. But politically, he just signed his own death warrant.
Not because of any Democratic backlash in the November elections. There may not be one nationally, and it’s hard to imagine one in his home state of Kentucky. Trump is on pace to tell another four thousand lies or so between now and November 3rd, which is more than enough to make everyone forget just what an offense this trial was to American democracy itself.
After 35 years in the Senate, McConnell knows how long the anger of American voters can linger. (Not long.) Underestimating the voters is not the mistake he made. But for the man who’s long been recognized as one of the Senate’s greatest tacticians, the acquittal of President Trump is just an astonishingly shortsighted move.
The Democrats served it up to him on a silver platter. He could have coasted to another four years in power, controlling the Senate under a Republican president. He could have installed at least one and likely two more Brett Kavanaughs on the Supreme Court, giving conservatives a 7–2 majority for the rest of his natural life. All he had to do was convict and remove Trump, and install Vice President Pence in his place.
At first glance it looks like it should go down as one of the world’s great unsolved mysteries: why would Republicans not choose a president who gives them everything they wanted from Trump, and a whole lot more — and also happens to be not crazy? It’s no mystery: Trump’s power rests in a cult of personality, and Pence couldn’t sustain it. He wouldn’t inspire the same following. But as a Trump acolyte he would likely win reelection in 2020, and help the Republicans keep a majority in the Senate, leaving Mitch McConnell in place as the Majority Leader.
Trump, on the other hand, almost certainly cannot win in 2020. Not without a whole lot more foreign help than he’s likely to get. Nothing has changed since the impeachment inquiry began in the House. Trump’s approval ratings have stayed the same, and they will continue to stay the same. Nothing he has done at least since the 2018 midterms has had any significant impact on how voters feel about him. And how voters feel is that they hate him.
Polls have shown for a long time that American voters are prepared to pick anyone other than Trump to be their next president. His approval rating may be at an all-time high right now, but he’s still the least popular president in the history of polling, and voters are still saying they want a new president in November. (And at least one extremely thorough analysis suggests his current highs are illusory anyway.)
In any case, American voters are significantly more polarized and partisan than they’ve ever been before, and a lot of evidence suggests that impeachment hasn’t changed Trump’s polling specifically because voters’ choices were locked in since before he became President. Turnout will determine the winner in November, not how the “swing voters” break at the last minute. Trump will bring a huge turnout for Republicans, sure. But he’s likely to bring a much larger turnout for Democrats — especially among women and minorities, where his numbers could not be more dismal.
On the other hand, Pence wouldn’t get quite the same turnout among Republicans, but negative partisanship suggests that Republicans would still come out to vote, to get revenge on Democrats for undermining Trump. It also suggests that Democrats would not come out to vote, in anything approaching the numbers they could muster against Trump, because Pence doesn’t inspire the same hatred. Dread, yes. Contempt, certainly. Maybe even disgust. But not hatred.
Pence is the candidate who could deliver another four years of power to the Republicans, and potentially another four decades of power on the Supreme Court. But because of Mitch McConnell’s colossal and uncharacteristic miscalculation, he’ll never have that chance. Trump will cheat hard, but he’ll still lose. And the turnout of Trump haters will have a solid chance of flipping the Senate back to Democratic control, and that will be the end of McConnell’s career. He’ll retire instead of staying on to lead a powerless minority. And he’ll have his own evidence-free impeachment trial to thank for it.