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Why Mitt Romney's courageous vote to convict Trump matters

Until Wednesday afternoon, the divide in American politics seemed to be set in high-performance concrete reinforced by tungsten steel rods. That changed when Sen. Mitt RomneyWillard (Mitt) Mitt RomneyDemocrats brush off calls for Biden to play hardball on Cabinet picks Hogan 'embarrassed that more people' in the GOP 'aren't speaking up' against Trump Democrats gear up for last oversight showdown with Trump MORE (R-Utah) became the first senator in American history to vote to convict a president of his own party.

The word commonly used to describe the virulent partisanship in our politics is “tribal.” But that unfairly disparages indigenous tribes around the world. The divisions have torn apart families and friends. In 2018, when Rep. Paul GosarPaul Anthony GosarDemocrat O'Halleran wins reelection in Arizona House race Lil Jon slams Paul Gosar: 'Don't quote my songs' Hundreds of Trump supporters protest election results in Pennsylvania MORE (R-Ariz.) campaigned for reelection, six brothers and sisters attacked him in a Democratic commercial as a racist. After winning reelection, Gosar said that Stalin would have been proud of his siblings.  

Trump, that impresario of divisiveness, rancor and vilification, bears the brunt of the blame. But the Democrats need to look in the mirror, too. I fully understand why House Speaker Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiUS economy hurtles toward 'COVID cliff' with programs set to expire Democrats gear up for last oversight showdown with Trump Divided citizenry and government — a call to action for common ground MORE (D-Calif.) tore up Trump’s State of the Union speech after he refused to shake her hand. But clips of the two unedifying scenes went viral and probably even alarmed some children.

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Sen. Bernie SandersBernie SandersDemocrats brush off calls for Biden to play hardball on Cabinet picks What's behind the divisions over Biden's secretary of Labor? Young voters set turnout record, aiding Biden win MORE (D-Vt.) isn’t helping much either when, with us-against-them rhetoric, he demonizes corporations; entire industries like health care, where hundreds of thousands of Americans work; and billionaires, whom he compares to “drug addicts.” 

That’s why Mitt Romney’s vote to convict Trump matters, even though the Senate acquitted the president on an otherwise party line vote. The two previous presidential impeachments and trials at least swayed political and public opinion. After his impeachment and acquittal in the Senate in 1868, the incumbent President Andrew Johnson’s Democratic Party denied him the nomination for president. After House Republicans impeached Democratic President Bill ClintonWilliam (Bill) Jefferson ClintonWomen set to take key roles in Biden administration Biden's great challenge: Build an economy for long-term prosperity and security Biden faces politically thorny decision on Trump prosecutions MORE, his approval rating jumped 10 percent, his highest ever.  

Not so with Donald Trump’s impeachment and acquittal in these ferociously partisan times, even though his conduct was far worse than Johnson’s or Clinton’s. Johnson was impeached for firing a Cabinet officer in violation of a law later found to be unconstitutional. Clinton lied under oath about an extramarital affair. Trump was willing to let a vital American ally go down to defeat in its war with Russia unless it announced, notwithstanding the lack of any evidentiary justification, that it was investigating Trump’s then-leading political rival. Trump’s conduct was condemned or defended almost exclusively on a partisan basis, and public opinion barely moved.

Then Romney stepped over a San Andreas-size national political fault line. He explained his vote to convict Trump for abuse of power (he voted to acquit on the charge of obstruction of Congress) by saying that the president in fact pressured a foreign government “to corrupt” the 2020  presidential election. “Corrupting an election to keep oneself in office is perhaps the most abusive and destructive violation of one’s oath of office that I can imagine,” Romney said.

It was a moment of stunning clarity and singular courage. Romney knew that Trump and his allies would demand his “head on a pike.” Republicans immediately impugned Romney’s motives by claiming that he acted from personal animosity towards Trump, and it's only going to get worse.     

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When I heard about Romney’s vote, I thought of Fred Rogers on “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” telling children that, when they saw something scary on the news, “look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.”

If your children saw President TrumpDonald John TrumpBiden to nominate Linda Thomas-Greenfield for UN ambassador: reports Scranton dedicates 'Joe Biden Way' to honor president-elect Kasich: Republicans 'either in complete lockstep' or 'afraid' of Trump MORE refuse Nancy Pelosi’s offered hand and then watched as she tore up his speech, you can point out to them Mitt Romney’s courageous vote to convict the president of abuse of power.   

Gregory J. Wallance was a federal prosecutor during the Carter and Reagan administrations. He is the author most recently of “The Woman Who Fought An Empire: Sarah Aaronsohn and Her Nili Spy Ring.” Follow him on Twitter at @gregorywallance.