It’s one of the most compelling political stories in decades: the attempt by one of America’s two major political parties to sort out, through both reason and recrimination, whether it will be organized around principles or personality.
Certain Republican federal officeholders are doing themselves proud in anchoring the principles camp. Count among them senators Mitt Romney of Utah, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, Ben Sasse of Nebraska, Susan Collins of Maine, and, in the House, Republican Conference chairwoman Liz Cheney of Wyoming, Representative Adam Kinzinger of Illinois, and a handful of others. They have largely taken Donald Trump’s measure and spoken some unvarnished truths about him.
Still, even after the Trump-inspired sacking of the Capitol on Jan. 6, Trump toadyism remains strong.
Some of it is diverting stuff indeed. Take, for example, Representative Matt Gaetz of Florida, who plans a trip to Wyoming Thursday to launch a Trumpist rhetorical attack on Cheney, the House’s third-ranking Republican, for voting to impeach Trump. By casting that principled vote, Gaetz charges, Cheney has made common cause with the radical left.
As Trump flunkeys go, Gaetz is a trifling tumbleweed. But consider one who is not: Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina. The one-time political wingman of the redoubtable John McCain once rightly called Trump “a race-baiting, xenophobic, religious bigot,” who “doesn’t represent my party.”
Of course, once Trump took office, Graham became one of his most enthusiastic allies and enablers.
Yet the Trump-stoked storming of the Capitol by a violent mob, which resulted in five deaths, including that of a Capitol Police officer who was struck with a fire extinguisher, seemed to have been the last straw for Graham.
It had been “a hell of a journey” but “count me out,” Graham said, just a few hours after the Trump supporters ransacked the Capitol. But even as some Republicans are contemplating a vote to convict Trump on the impeachment article of inciting an insurrection, Graham has returned to Trumpophilic form — and is now advising the disgraced former president on impeachment.
“If you’re wanting to erase Donald Trump from the party, you’re going to get erased,” he warned on Fox News. “This idea of moving forward without Donald Trump in the Republican Party is a disaster for the Republican Party.” Well, really, what’s a deadly mob riot between friends?
Meanwhile, after some surprising clarity and candor, House minority leader Kevin McCarthy has reverted to his trademark hackery. To be sure, McCarthy had made only the briefest diversion from that longtime modus operandi. And previous to that, he had signed on to Trump’s lies about a stolen election and encouraged Republicans to support the absurd fact-free challenges the Trump forces were waging.
Yet on Jan. 13, McCarthy said, rightly, “The president bears responsibility for Wednesday’s attack on Congress by mob rioters” — and suggested he should be censured.
He has since lapsed back into full Trumpism.
“I don’t believe he provoked it, if you listen to what he said at the rally,” McCarthy now says of the insurrection.
Defenders of McCarthy-like conduct excuse it by noting that the Republican grass roots are still strongly with Trump. That’s true, at least for now. But it assumes that an elected official has neither the ability nor the duty to change those perspectives by speaking truth to his constituents and so must truckle to them.
Finally, consider Senator Rob Portman of Ohio, who announced this week he won’t seek reelection, saying that in this polarized era, it’s become difficult to get anything significant done.
Portman is a smart, sensible, constructive conservative, but one who, in the time of Trump, kept his head low and did little to promote his own brand of politics. He might have faced a challenge from utterly shameless Trump cheerleader Jim Jordan, a congressman now eyeing a Senate candidacy.
And so, as Tennessee’s Lamar Alexander just did, Portman will depart the Senate in two years having fallen far short of his potential. Which raises this question: Why keep quiet during your tenure, only to lament the sorry political situation upon your departure?
In times like these, the nation, and particularly the Republican Party, needs smart, reasonable people to speak loudly and forcefully. Too few yet do.