Now many believe it has unequivocally failed.
“I mean, I saw great leaders like Howard Baker, who was one of the greatest leaders we ever had,” Patrick Leahy, the Democrat from Vermont who is the Senate’s senior member, told me today. He was referring to the Republican from Tennessee who became a reluctant opponent of Richard Nixon in Watergate, and whose old seat is now held by Lamar Alexander, who all but assured the outcome of the debate on witnesses late last night when he announced that he was opposed to calling any.
Leahy is the last of the so-called Watergate babies elected to the Senate in 1974, and when I buttonholed him in the Capitol’s basement subway, he ticked through the long list of bipartisan leaders under whom he has served. “Bob Dole and George Mitchell, working so closely together, Democrat and Republican, the leaders working things out,” he said. “Like Trent Lott and Tom Daschle did, Mike Mansfield and Hugh Scott. I was there with all of them, and I’ve always felt the Senate should be the conscience of the nation. And we’re not sure [sic] the conscience.”
As a new reporter in Washington a quarter century ago, I watched the collapse in the Senate of Bill and Hillary Clinton’s grand effort to overhaul the nation’s health-care system. One spring day in 1994, Dole, then the Senate’s Republican minority leader, passed a note to his longtime Democratic friend Daniel Patrick Moynihan of New York, who as the powerful chairman of the Senate Finance Committee had jurisdiction, asking, “Pat, Are we ready for the Moynihan-Dole Bill?” But the Clinton White House said no compromise, the Republican House leader Newt Gingrich said no dice, and Dole, who wanted nothing so much as to win the Republican nomination for president in 1996, realized he had to give up. Long-shot efforts at compromise by John Chafee, a Republican from Rhode Island and veteran of Guadalcanal who had been John F. Kennedy’s Navy secretary, and John Breaux, a laissez les bon temps rouler Democrat from Louisiana, also came to naught. Months later, the Democrats lost both houses of Congress and, arguably, nothing in Washington has ever been quite the same.
More recent changes have accelerated the trend. The late Senator John McCain of Arizona used to delight in introducing me or another of my colleagues as “a communist reporter from The New York Times,” but he meant it as a joke. His successor, Martha McSally, recently called CNN’s Manu Raju “a liberal hack” on camera while refusing to answer his question in a Senate hallway, and she was dead serious.
Chuck Schumer, the Democratic minority leader whose 10-day battle for witnesses is now over, has almost perfectly straddled the change. He told reporters this morning that “the president’s acquittal will be meaningless, because it will be the result of a sham trial” that will leave “a permanent asterisk,” one “written in permanent ink,” on Trump’s record.