Spinelessness masquerading as strategy: ladies and gentlemen, your Republican United States senators. Sure, in the past week we have seen a handful of GOP senators acknowledge that Joe Biden handed President Donald Trump a decisive beating. Utah’s Mitt Romney, take a bow. Maine’s Susan Collins: an artful statement of congratulations on Biden’s “apparent victory.” Lisa Murkowski, of Alaska, and Ben Sasse, of Nebraska—profiles in courage. Oklahoma’s James Lankford and Missouri’s Roy Blunt have edged tentatively toward the line by agreeing that Biden should be receiving classified intelligence briefings, though Blunt claims Trump “may not have been defeated at all.”
The other 47 Republicans, however, have emulated Wisconsin’s Ron Johnson, who tossed a there’s “nothing to congratulate [Biden] about” over his shoulder while fleeing reporters. That refusal to publicly accept reality has largely been interpreted as a scheme to avoid antagonizing Trump voters in Georgia, where two runoffs in January will determine whether Republicans retain a Senate majority in 2021. The Georgia calculation is indeed part of the dynamic. But there is a whole lot more gutlessness on display at the moment.
“This is pure political cowardice,” says Chris Van Hollen, a Democratic senator from Maryland. “This is much more about their fear of Trump putting them on the wrong end of a tweet storm. Republican senators know that Trump lost the vote in their states. That’s what makes it even worse. It was bad enough that they wouldn’t stand up to his abuse of power before the election. The fact they are still cowering after he’s lost is a clear sign that Trump, through his followers, still has a grip on the Republican Party.”
Chris Murphy, a Democratic senator from Connecticut, sees some ideological motivation at work too. “What Trump is doing in attacking the election results plays into a broader Republican project of delegitimizing government as a mechanism to smooth out the rough edges of the economy. If people don’t think elections are fair, they are also going to be less willing to believe that government actions are legitimate. The Republicans are in a strange position today where their ideas are not very popular, which is why they’re increasingly reliant on the Supreme Court to effectuate their policy agenda. So elections are often pretty inconvenient for Republicans.” Even with that big-picture analysis, he’s still astounded at the hypocrisy of his GOP peers. “I’ve had dozens of conversations over the last four years with Republicans in which they complain privately about how out of control this president is, and then they do nothing about it publicly,” Murphy says. “Their conduct over the last 10 days has been no different. They’re in the business of placating this president.”
Biden spent 35 years in the Senate and claims that his capacity to reach across the aisle will be a strength. But he understands that there’s little to gain in pressing his former colleagues to publicly disavow Trump. Instead, Biden has been taking the high road, projecting confidence in math and Democratic lawyers, talking about his plans to battle the new wave of COVID-19 when he moves into the White House, coolly needling Trump, and giving the current president plenty of room to spin out. “You’ve got one president, and it’s not the person in D.C. right now,” a Biden ally says.
Which is progress, at least tonally. Meanwhile, Biden’s old pal Mitch McConnell has been trying to delegitimize his election. McConnell is ruthlessly, relentlessly determined to stay in power as Senate majority leader, so he has encouraged Trump’s vain attempts to question the results, believing it will help stoke Georgia’s MAGA voters to show up for incumbents David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler. And most of the Senate Republican caucus is taking its cues from McConnell. Yet there is a large and important subset of McConnell’s membership that cares a whole lot less about Georgia in January than it does about the Iowa Republican caucuses in February 2024. Arkansas senator Tom Cotton, Missouri’s Josh Hawley, South Carolina’s Tim Scott, Texas’s Ted Cruz, and Florida’s Marco Rubio and Rick Scott all dream of becoming the GOP’s next presidential nominee. “Mitch kind of sets out a marker on issues, and Republican senators can go further or less than him,” a senior congressional Democratic insider says. “So yes, they’re thinking about Georgia. But they’re thinking about their own political self-interest in the coming two to four years. That means, why piss off the Trump base immediately? You can’t ever discount the fact that they’re absolutely terrified of Trump. And if you’re running for president, why do you want to be the one who first pronounced Donald Trump dead?” And why, for the next four years, do anything to cooperate with President Biden?
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