(Bloomberg Opinion) -- The risk of a Senate conviction of President Donald Trump is higher than it may at first appear. This is the conclusion I reach by applying game theory.
Start with the motives of those involved. Republican senators, like most politicians, desire re-election. There are two major threats to their re-election.
First, if they remove the president from office, the entire Republican Party will be in some sense disgraced. Recall that Republicans at all levels were swept from office following the resignation of President Richard Nixon due to the Watergate scandal. Obviously that is a big reason that Republicans aren’t embracing impeachment.
A second factor, however, pushes in the opposite direction. If Trump is viewed as too corrupt, too poisonous or too unreliable by swing voters, some of these senators also run the risk of losing their jobs. These senators therefore wish to rein in Trump, if only for selfish reasons. Trump and his policies are not very popular, as illustrated by numerous polls. And some senators might decide that loyalty to country, and to the future of the world, also argues for constraining Trump.
Reining in Trump does not have to mean forcing the leopard to change its spots, which is probably impossible anyway. But it could mean nudging Trump to be less outrageous: Don’t respond to the Ukraine accusations by encouraging China to investigate Joe Biden’s son, for example. Be more careful in your dealings with Turkey and the Kurds. Refrain from calling Never Trump Republicans “human scum.”
OK, so now to take the next step: How can these senators possibly check Trump? The threat of impeachment is their most potent weapon. Trump’s border wall is stalled, and he can pursue the trade war more or less on his own (Congress is unlikely to revoke the trade authority it has granted the president). So the Senate does not have too many policy sticks and carrots to keep Trump in line.
Given that reality, the only way for Senate Republicans to threaten impeachment is to actually take some modest steps in that direction. That means a certain reticence to side unconditionally with Trump, periodic acts of criticism and dissent, maybe even an occasional suggestion that a Republican is considering voting to convict.
Note that the Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is widely considered one of the most acute strategists in Washington. If anyone is capable of coordinating some Republicans to follow this strategy, he is.
In September, the Senate considered a nonbinding resolution calling on the Trump administration to provide the House and Senate intelligence committees with a copy of the whistle-blower complaint related to Ukraine. It passed by a vote of 100-0. Meanwhile, Senator Lindsey Graham last week introduced a resolution condemning the House impeachment inquiry, but it has so far failed to get unanimous Republican support.
The upshot is that McConnell’s power over the president is growing. These are exactly the kinds of wrist slaps Trump notices.
The question, of course, is how Trump will respond to critical signals from Republican senators. My guess is that he will not play a cooperative “tit for tat” strategy, trading signals in a rational manner to keep senators in line and proceeding toward an orderly resolution of the impeachment judgment from the House. Rather, the signals sent his way might enrage him or raise his stress level to the point where he behaves less rationally than usual. Then the Senate will have to work all the harder to constrain Trump, thereby upping the stakes — and the stress — once again. Trump knows that many of those Republican senators do not in fact like him very much.
The chance that this spat will escalate rather than stabilize is the impeachment variable not being considered by most other analysts.
There is yet one final variable. As some Republican senators send signals to Trump, those signals will themselves draw public and party reaction. Imagine if Mitt Romney’s opposition to Trump became yet more explicit, and Romney did not experience major protests from within his own party, at least not at the expected scale. It might then be open season on Trump, and everyone would see that his support was weaker than expected — maybe not among die-hard Republicans, but with independents and swing voters. If senators see their re-election chances slipping away, they might stage a rebellion.
Is this the most likely scenario? No. But it absolutely should be on your radar as the impeachment drama unfolds.
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Tyler Cowen is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He is a professor of economics at George Mason University and writes for the blog Marginal Revolution. His books include "Big Business: A Love Letter to an American Anti-Hero."
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