Can Only Republicans Legitimately Win Elections?
“Trump and many of the G.O.P.’s leaders seem to think so, with ominous consequences for the future.
Of the many stories to tell about American politics since the end of the Cold War, one of growing significance is how the Republican Party came to believe in its singular legitimacy as a political actor. Whether it’s a hangover from the heady days of the Reagan revolution (when conservatives could claim ideological hegemony) or something downstream of America’s reactionary traditions, it’s a belief that now dominates conservative politics and has placed much of the Republican Party in opposition to republican government itself.
It’s a story of escalation, from the relentless obstruction of the Gingrich era to the effort to impeach Bill Clinton to the attempt to nullify the presidency of Barack Obama and on to the struggle, however doomed, to keep Joe Biden from ever sitting in the White House as president. It also goes beyond national politics. In 2016, after a Democrat, Roy Cooper, defeated the Republican incumbent Pat McCrory for the governorship of North Carolina, the state’s Republican legislature promptly strippedthe office of power and authority. Wisconsin Republicans did the same in 2018 after Tony Evers unseated Scott Walker in his bid for a third term. And Michigan Republicans took similar steps against another Democrat, Gretchen Whitmer, after her successful race for the governor’s mansion.
Considered in the context of a 30-year assault on the legitimacy of Democratic leaders and Democratic constituencies (of which Republican-led voter suppression is an important part), the present attempt to disrupt and derail the certification of electoral votes is but the next step, in which Republicans say, outright, that a Democrat has no right to hold power and try to make that reality. The next Democrat to win the White House — whether it’s Biden getting re-elected or someone else winning for the first time — will almost certainly face the same flood of accusations, challenges and lawsuits, on the same false grounds of “fraud.”
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It’s worth emphasizing the bad faith and dishonesty on display here. At least 140 House Republicans say that they will vote against counting certain electoral votes on Wednesday. Among them are newly seated lawmakers in Georgia and Pennsylvania, two states whose votes are in contention. But the logic of their objection applies to them as well as Biden. If his state victories are potentially illegitimate, then so are theirs. Or take the charge, from Ted Cruz and 10 other Senate Republicans, that multiple key swing states changed (or even violated) their election laws in contravention of the Constitution. If it’s true for those cases, then it’s also true of Texas, where Gov. Greg Abbott, a Republican, unilaterally expanded voting, however meagerly. And yet there’s no drive to cancel those results.
The issue for Republicans is not election integrity, it’s the fact that Democratic votes count at all.
That said, not every Republican has joined the president’s crusade against self-government. Senator Tom Cotton of Arkansas shares the presidential ambitions of Cruz and Josh Hawley and others who want to disrupt the electoral vote count. But where they see opportunity, he sees blowback. Here he is in a statement released by his office:
If Congress purported to overturn the results of the Electoral College, it would not only exceed that power, but also establish unwise precedents. First, Congress would take away the power to choose the president from the people, which would essentially end presidential elections and place that power in the hands of whichever party controls Congress. Second, Congress would imperil the Electoral College, which gives small states like Arkansas a voice in presidential elections. Democrats could achieve their longstanding goal of eliminating the Electoral College in effect by refusing to count electoral votes in the future for a Republican president-elect.
So do seven of his Republican colleagues in the House, who similarly argue that this stunt will undermine the Republican Party’s ability to win presidential elections:
From a purely partisan perspective, Republican presidential candidates have won the national popular vote only once in the last 32 years. They have therefore depended on the Electoral College for nearly all presidential victories in the last generation. If we perpetuate the notion that Congress may disregard certified electoral votes — based solely on its own assessment that one or more states mishandled the presidential election — we will be delegitimizing the very system that led Donald Trump to victory in 2016, and that could provide the only path to victory in 2024.
But even as they stand against the effort to challenge the results, these Republicans affirm the baseless idea that there was fraud and abuse in the election. Cotton says he “shares the concerns of many Arkansans about irregularities in the presidential election,” while the House lawmakers say that they “are outraged at the significant abuses in our election system resulting from the reckless adoption of mail-in ballots and the lack of safeguards maintained to guarantee that only legitimate votes are cast and counted.” Even as they criticize an attempted power grab, they echo the idea that one side has legitimate voters and the other does not.
It’s hard to say how anyone can shatter this belief in the Republican Party’s singular right to govern. The most we can do, in this moment, is rebuke the attempt to overturn the election in as strong a manner as possible. If President Trump broke the law with his phone call to Brad Raffensperger, the secretary of state of Georgia — in which he pressured Raffensperger to “find” votes on his behalf — then Trump should be pursued like any other citizen who attempted to subvert an election. He should be impeached as well, even if there’s only two weeks left in his term, and the lawmakers who support him should be censured and condemned.
There’s no guarantee that all this will hurt the Republican Party at the ballot box. But I think we’re past that. The question now is whether the events of the past two months will stand as precedent, a guide for those who might emulate Trump.
The door to overturning a presidential election is open. The rules — or at least a tortured, politically motivated reading of the rules — make it possible. Moreover, it is a simple reality of political systems that what can happen eventually will happen. It may not be in four years, it may not be in eight, but if the Republican Party continues along this path, it will run this play again. And there’s nothing to say it can’t work.“