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Republican consciences struggle to be heard

Senator Mitt Romney at the Ronald Reagan Republican

Senator Mitt Romney at the Ronald Reagan Republican Center in Washington, D.C. on Sept. 22, 2020. Credit: Bloomberg/Amanda Andrade-Rhoades

A healthy conscience is a feature — or is it a bug? — of a normal human psyche. It has the pesky capacity to tell us when we're doing the wrong thing, even in the face of the rationalizations that we produce to justify ourselves.

But a conscience is a fragile thing. Ignore its advice too frequently and it has trouble making itself heard. In fact, it made hardly a peep among Republican leaders last week after the death of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

The speed with which Republicans are determined to replace Ginsburg on the Supreme Court contrasts sharply with their refusal to give President Barack Obama's 2016 nominee to the Court — Merrick Garland — even a hearing.

The rationale used against President Obama employed a populist appeal: We have an election scheduled in eight months. Let the people decide.

With an election coming up in six weeks, the hypocrisy of this position is so striking that the consciences of individual Republicans demand, however feebly, a rationale for this unscrupulous haste.

Well, maybe not the president's. Trump has so abused his conscience over the years that no rationale is necessary. Its feeble voice was rendered mute decades ago by ego, money, lust and power.

Sen. Mitch McConnell's conscience, however, tells him that his rush to confirm Trump's nominee is so dubious that it requires at least some rationale: the difference between 2016 and now, he says, is that then the White House and Senate were held by different parties and now they are held by the same party.

The logic is elusive, but the conclusion that it leads to can't be what McConnell has in mind. Should Trump win the White House in November and Democrats win the Senate — unlikely, but not impossible — McConnell's logic implies that a Democratic Senate would be under no obligation to consider any Trump nominee to the court for the next four years.

Sen. Lindsey Graham's ethical position is even more questionable than McConnell's. Graham, the chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, was emphatic in 2016: "I want you to use my words against me. If there's a Republican president in 2016 and a vacancy occurs in the last year of the first term, you can say Lindsey Graham said let's let the next president, whoever it might be, make that nomination."

His conscience must be uncomfortable. Or maybe not. In any case, the best Graham could do was to offer this feeble defense: Sure it's wrong. But you'd do the same thing.

The most interesting case is Sen. Mitt Romney's. Romney, devoutly religious, clearly has a conscience, though it must be terribly embattled. He's the single Republican to cast a half-hearted vote for conviction during Trump's impeachment trial in the Senate. Something inside of him must have said that the stunning evidence in the Mueller report should not be completely ignored for the sake of political power.

Democrats hoped that Romney might be one of the four Republican senators needed to derail the hypocritical rush to fill Ginsburg's seat. They were disappointed. After a few days of pretending to let his conscience have a say, he announced that he will be voting with the team.

His rationale: The U.S., he said, is a center-right country and thus requires a center-right court.

But Romney is wrong in two ways: The Supreme Court was already a center-right body, and Ginsburg's replacement by another "liberal" justice would maintain a reasonable 5-4 balance. A third Trump-nominated justice will result in a 6-3 hard-right court.

Second, the U.S. is not a center-right country; it's a center-left country. If Romney doesn't believe this, there's a simple test that could reveal who is correct: the national election scheduled for Nov. 3.

But Trump never makes it easy. The day after Romney fell into line, Trump refused to commit to a peaceful transfer of power.

Romney said that such a statement is "unthinkable and unacceptable." His conscience must be saying, "Hey, I tried to tell you. But you still have an opportunity to do the right thing. Take it."

John M. Crisp is an op-ed columnist for Tribune News Service.

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