Saturday, November 28, 2020
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Republican Officials Have Got to Start Telling Their Voters the Truth About the Election

Republican Officials Have Got to Start Telling Their Voters the Truth About the Election
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On November 8th, the morning after the A.P. and other news organizations, looking at the votes that had been counted in each state, recognized Joe Biden as the President-elect, Representative Jim Clyburn, Democrat of South Carolina, took something of a victory lap on the Sunday-morning news shows. Clyburn’s decision, just ahead of the February 29th South Carolina primary, to endorse Biden and campaign for him, has been seen as transformative. Biden won almost fifty per cent of the vote in the South Carolina primary, in what was then still a crowded field of seven major candidates; Pete Buttigieg and Amy Klobuchar promptly dropped out and endorsed him, just in time for Super Tuesday. “If it were not for you, I don’t think he would have gotten the nomination,” Jake Tapper, of CNN, told Clyburn. “And I have no idea whether—whether or not I’d be covering a Democratic President-elect.” Clyburn, in response, suggested that the real credit should go to an “elderly lady” he had encountered sitting in the front pew at a rural church, who had called him over and asked which candidate he was voting for. She added, “If you don’t want anybody else to hear, just lean down and whisper it in my ear.”

“And I did what she asked me to do,” Clyburn said. What persuaded him to do more, though, was “the way she looked in my face and told me, ‘I needed to hear that, and this community needs to hear from you.’ ”

The moral of the story, as Clyburn saw it, is that his choices and his actions had “bubbled up” from those of the people he served: he had already decided that he would vote for Biden but wasn’t sure how vocal he would be about it until that woman looked him in the eye. And there is something worth contemplating in the idea that an elderly lady in a rural church might have had a part in changing history; it mattered not only that Clyburn endorsed Biden but that he did it so loudly and wholeheartedly, rallying voters. But there is another observation one could make, too, one that Republican elected officials should take as an admonition and a warning: even for Clyburn, a politician who seems to be in touch with his community, it can come as a jolt to realize that his words mean something to his constituents—they “needed to hear that” from him. As cynical as one may be about politicians, they can serve as authorities for the people who check a box, ink in an oval, or pull a switch next to their names. And, when the moment calls for politicians to take a position, especially amid controversy or crisis, those voters need to hear that from them.

Joe Biden won the Presidential election, but most Republican voters have not heard that from their elected representatives. More than a week after the A.P.’s call, still only four sitting G.O.P. senators—Susan Collins, Lisa Murkowski, Mitt Romney, and Ben Sasse—have even congratulated Biden on his victory. (Former President George W. Bush has also done so.) Romney, the G.O.P.’s 2012 Presidential nominee, appearing on CNN immediately after Clyburn, spackled his statement with qualifiers (“unless, for some reason, that’s overturned,” “there are also allegations of irregularities”), which other Republicans seem to have taken as a template for avoidance. Many of them are lying low. This Sunday, Chuck Todd, of NBC’s “Meet the Press,” said that the show had asked every sitting Republican senator to come on and got no takers. The best “Meet the Press” could do, in terms of a prominent Republican in office, was Asa Hutchinson, the governor of Arkansas, who, because of term limits, will not be running for reëlection. Hutchinson managed to say, “I expect Joe Biden to be the next President of the United States,” but then moved on to refer to “a process to get there” and “constitutional assertions” that had to be resolved before that could be said with any certainty.

Hutchinson isn’t the only Republican who has clung to the word “process” like a life raft. “This process will reach its resolution,” Mitch McConnell, the Senate Majority Leader, said in a speech, from the Senate floor, which referred to “allegations of irregularities.” Senator Rick Scott, of Florida, said, “I think we ought to finish going through the process . . . There’ll be plenty of time.” It’s as if they expect the public to join them in pretending that it is quite normal for elected officials not to accept state returns as real until the Electoral College has actually met. Mike DeWine, the Republican governor of Ohio, had acknowledged, in a CNN interview on Thursday, that Biden should be considered the President-elect, but he went on to defend Trump’s efforts to contest the election, saying, on Sunday, again on CNN, that no one should “begrudge” the President that, raising the question of whether the process they all were talking about was a constitutional or a psychological one. We are at a strange point when soothing a President’s ego is seen as an acceptable reason to sow doubts about our democracy.

Other Republicans are directly charging fraud. Lindsey Graham has been railing about how the election looks crooked to him and that the President must keep fighting. Senators Kelly Loeffler and David Perdue, who are both headed for runoff elections in Georgia, said in a joint statement that their secretary of state had “failed to deliver honest and transparent elections.” Senator Rand Paul suggested that a lot of dead people had voted. Ted Cruz has suggested that the election was run in a manner that was not only rife with fraud but unconstitutional—there is no evidence for this—and that the question of who won would end up before the Supreme Court. According to Bloomberg News, when Senator John Kennedy, of Louisiana, was asked whether he really thought that Trump could overturn the results, he said, “That’s why God made judges.” In Trump’s mind, that’s why the Senate confirms his judges.

To be clear, the only reason that the result might be overturned is if Trump manages to disenfranchise whole categories of voters (those voting by mail, for example) in multiple states. The President’s allegations of fraud have so far amounted to fairy dust, including vague intimations that things just did not feel right to his election observers and outright falsehoods about how much access those observers had to the vote-counting proceedings. Other technical complaints, such as one raised about ballots in Arizona, would affect only a handful of votes. (This suit was later dropped.) It is shameful that Republicans even refer to the fraud allegations with a straight face, especially given the dangerous escalation of Trump’s rhetoric, with his furious tweets and retweets about how voting machines had supposedly been reprogrammed—possibly by Cuba, Venezuela, and China?—to steal his victory. (There is, again, no evidence that such a thing happened.) On Sunday, when he tweeted, of Biden, “He won because the Election was Rigged,” a Presidential statement that would have been regarded as unimaginably extreme in pre-Trump America, it was seen, briefly, as a relief: Was he preparing to concede? “I think that’s the start of an acknowledgment,” Hutchinson said. It wasn’t. An hour and a half later, Trump tweeted, “He only won in the eyes of the FAKE NEWS MEDIA. I concede NOTHING! We have a long way to go. This was a RIGGED ELECTION!”

Trump is not just questioning certain returns. He has begun saying that the whole election is a fraud and needs to be thrown out. In yet another tweet, on Sunday night, he wrote that “those responsible for the safeguarding of our Constitution cannot allow the Fake results of the 2020 Mail-In Election to stand. The World is watching!” Nor is he suggesting that the matter be left entirely to the courts, where he has suffered setbacks. (It turns out that you can’t just file a tweet in federal court.) Nor is this merely a social-media tantrum. On Saturday, Trump left the White House to drive past crowds who had gathered to “Stop the Steal”; he later retweeted a split-screen video showing people waving Trump banners in the sunshine juxtaposed with footage of one of his supporters being knocked to the ground in darkness, adding the comment, “We won’t let a RIGGED ELECTION steal our Country!” He blamedANTIFA SCUM” for sporadic violence and added, “DC Police, get going—do your job and don’t hold back!!!”

That is what people who voted for Trump are hearing from him. How they evaluate his statements depends, to a significant degree, on what they hear from the people they voted for down the ballot. This may be a responsibility that the Republicans desperately want to avoid, but they can’t. For them to even stand back and talk about the “process” makes it sound as though Trump’s complaints are in the normal realm of asking for a recount in a very close race, when they are not. It has been remarkable to see, in the past week, how very little has been demanded of Republicans in Washington, and how they balk at even that. On Wednesday, Senator James Lankford, of Oklahoma, said he believed that Biden should receive access to a version of the President’s daily brief, which the intelligence community assembles, as he did as the Democratic nominee and as is customary for a President-elect. Lankford said that he would get involved in making sure that happened if Biden was not receiving them by Friday. The next day, Lankford tempered his statement, telling reporters, “Some individuals in the media made it more than it was”—which was still not much. “We still don’t know who the President is going to be at this point,” he said, adding, “There are a lot of questions about a lot of states. I completely trust the President trying to be able to push some of these issues.” The message was that the people of Oklahoma should trust Trump, too, and that they shouldn’t trust the abundant evidence establishing that we do, in fact, know who the next President is going to be—or, at least, who the voters said the next President should be.

After Friday came and went without Biden receiving the briefings, Lankford told the Oklahoman that he was still on the case and hoped that the matter would be resolved “sometime soon.” As of Monday, it hadn’t been, even though other Republicans, including Hutchinson, have also said that Biden should still get the briefings. It is a pathetic defeat, both because saying that a potential President should get intelligence briefs is still pretty far from saying that Trump lost—it can hardly count as bravery—and because of the sheer pettiness involved. Similarly, the head of the General Services Administration still hadn’t signed the paperwork to release resources for the transition—which means, among other things, that Biden’s new coronavirus task force is being held back in its planning, at a precarious stage in the pandemic. These are practical matters that create risk for the country.





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