‘Trumpification’ of the GOP will persist
There is no better illustration of the Trumpification of the Republican party than Elise Stefanik, who starts her fourth term in the House this week.
The upstate New York lawmaker was a textbook moderate-conservative Republican of the Bush variety. She was a young assistant in the George W. Bush administration, then a campaign aide to Paul Ryan, endorsed John Kasich for the GOP nomination in 2016 and kept a distance from Donald Trump.
After election to the House six years ago at age 30, she vowed to be a bridge to millennials and became co-chair of the “Tuesday Group,” a small contingent of moderate Republicans designed to counter the far right.
Then over a year ago she saw the political handwriting and began veering rightward. A few of the mainstream Republicans stood up to Trump, notably Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) and a few governors, but not many. From the get-go, the president was a natural fit for the right-wing gunslingers like Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) in the House and Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.). Several genuine fiscal conservatives like former South Carolina Congressman Mark Sanford and former Arizona Sen. Jeff Flake retained their principles in the face of Trump’s recklessness; that’s why they are “formers” today.
Few have traveled the political and ideological distance traversed by Stefanik.
It started as she became Trump’s big defender during impeachment. As the only Republican woman on the Intelligence Committee, the party sought to highlight her role.
She became indignant that her prominence had anything to do with gender: “They’re putting me forward because I ask the best questions,” she told the Washington Post. (Stefanik declined to answer several inquiries for this column.) There was no reluctance to play the gender card when committee chair Adam Schiff, enforcing the clear House rules, cut off her questioning: He was accused of going after the only woman Republican.
From there, Stefanik became a Trump cheerleader. In June, Trump — against the advice of some public health officials — held a big rally in Tulsa. Surprisingly, Stefanik was there and got a shout-out from the president.
The event was a super spreader: Multiple staff and Secret Service agents were infected; leading Republican Herman Cain, an attendee, came down with virus and died weeks later; the number of cases in Oklahoma tripled over the next month.
Stefanik then was given a prime time speaking role at the Republican convention where she extolled the president’s virtues. This switch caused some criticism back home: “She has allowed her substance to be subsumed by President Trump’s style,” charged the Glens Falls (N.Y.) Post Star, a paper that previously endorsed her but backed her opponent last time. “She has compromised her character by defending his.”
It didn’t hurt her at home. She won reelection by nearly 18 points.
The next few weeks she was all over Fox News on behalf of the president. She had drunk the Trump Kool-Aid, one of 126 House members who supported the baseless Texas lawsuit that sought to throw out all the votes in Wisconsin, Michigan, Pennsylvania and Georgia, all states won by Biden. It was a frivolous suit ridiculed by most constitutional scholars, quickly and unanimously rejected by the Supreme Court.
Stefanik has kept at it, warning of Biden’s “radical socialism,” with few particulars. She has called on him to withdraw the nomination of Neera Tanden for director of the Office of Management Budget because of excessive criticism of Republicans on Twitter which Stefanik charges are “vicious, hate-fueled.”
Stefanik is an aggressive user of Twitter, and champion of the Tweeter-in-Chief. She has accused Democrats of trying to “steal” the election and blasted New York’s Andrew Cuomo as America’s “worst governor” and “Dr. Death” for his handling of the coronavirus pandemic, which she believes Trump has handled well.
This has led to speculation that Stefanik is eyeing a statewide run. The appeal of an upstate Trump-loving Republican in New York, which Joe Biden carried by 2 million votes, is limited.
More likely she is eying a top leadership post in the House, conceivably Majority Leader if Republicans win control in 2022. There will be political pressure to tap a woman, and the likely choice was thought to be Wyoming Rep. Liz Cheney.
Cheney has much more serious conservative credentials and policy expertise than Stefanik — but the devoutly conservative daughter of the former vice president has not kow-towed to Trump on matters of principle; she was one of the few prominent House Republicans refusing to sign the petition supporting the absurd Texas lawsuit.
Stefanik has become a prodigious fund-raiser for fellow Republicans and in any showdown would count on being the Trump candidate.
Al Hunt is the former executive editor of Bloomberg News. He previously served as reporter, bureau chief and Washington editor for the Wall Street Journal. For almost a quarter century he wrote a column on politics for The Wall Street Journal, then The International New York Times and Bloomberg View. He hosts 2020 Politics War Room with James Carville. Follow him on Twitter @AlHuntDC.