Republicans had Democrats right where they wanted them: on the ropes.
Then on Friday, the Republican National Committee voted to censure Representatives Liz Cheney and Adam Kinzinger, the two House Republicans on the congressional committee investigating the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol.
The text of the resolution made no distinction between peaceful protesters and those who stormed the Capitol, referring to that day’s events simply as “legitimate political discourse.” The R.N.C. also backed a primary challenge against Cheney, whose high-profile criticism of Donald Trump has made her a top target on the right.
It was one of those polarizing moments that forced other Republicans to react, with some — notably, a bunch of sitting U.S. senators — denouncing the national committee’s move as “wrong” and “absurd.”
In the view of many Republicans, censuring two of their own was much like that old saw attributed to Charles Maurice de Tallyrand-Périgord, the 19th-century French diplomat: Worse than a crime, it was also a mistake.
As President Biden grapples with soaring inflation, a pandemic that isn’t yet over and general public malaise over the two, why change the subject?
“Certainly it wasn’t the right thing to do, and certainly it wasn’t the politically smart thing to do,” said Josh Venable, a former deputy finance director for the R.N.C. “It doesn’t take David Axelrod or Karl Rove to figure that out.”
Mitch McConnell, the Senate’s top Republican and a man who chooses his words carefully, rejected the R.N.C.’s decision on Tuesday.
“We saw what happened,” he said. “It was a violent insurrection for the purpose of trying to prevent the peaceful transfer of power after a legitimately certified election from one administration to the next. That’s what it was.”
‘When we became the news’
This is the kind of intramural food fight that the press loves — and political operatives despise when their own party is on the proverbial menu.
“When I was at the R.N.C. in 2010, our worst days were when we became the news,” said Doug Heye, a Republican communications consultant. “G.O.P. senators and members know this, and it’s why you’re seeing them speak out.”
But while Cheney has Republican friends in the Senate, she has few, if any, in the House. Allies of Kevin McCarthy, the minority leader, see her as a political opportunist who has made their lives more difficult — a thoughtless colleague who failed to appreciate his attempts after the 2020 election to shield her from the wrath of her colleagues on the right.
Fielding a question on the controversy on Tuesday, Representative Elise Stefanik, who replaced Cheney as the third-ranking House Republican last year, offered a curt response. “My reaction is the R.N.C. has every right to take any action,” she said, “and the position I have is that you’re ultimately held accountable to voters in your district.”
Translation: Cheney deserves to lose her seat, and if the Republican Party wants to aid in the process, so be it.
The Trump question
There’s a lot going on here worth unpacking.
One obvious motive behind censuring Cheney and Kinzinger was to place them outside the bounds of respectable Republican Party company. Their presence on the Jan. 6 committee is a constant source of irritation for the party, giving Democrats bipartisan cover for an investigation that Republicans have sought to cast as a partisan vendetta.
But the larger point of tension is the same existential question that the Republican Party has been wrestling with since 2015, when a certain New York real estate mogul glided down that golden escalator: What to do about Donald Trump? And whose view of the party should prevail — his, or those of establishment leaders like McConnell?
Alyssa Farah Griffin, who served as former communications director in Trump’s White House before quitting over his stolen election claims, said the R.N.C.’s censure of Cheney and Kinzinger would “damage the Republican Party more broadly and going into 2024.”
She’s among around 150 Republicans who signed a statement this week condemning the move as a betrayal of the party’s “founding principles” and a signal that it “no longer welcomes people of conscience.”
‘An opportunity lost’
Then there are Republicans who express a more parochial concern — a party consumed with internal strife will have a harder time defeating Democrats in the upcoming midterms.
“Americans are scared of the future because of inflation, because of crime, and what do we talk about? A stolen election,” said Dick Wadhams, a Republican strategist in Colorado.
As Matt Continetti, the former editor of the Free Beacon, a conservative website, put it, “Any minute Republicans spend re-litigating 2020 or downplaying the events of Jan. 6, 2021, is an opportunity lost.”
Chris Stirewalt, a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, said the censure could be a sign that Republicans are getting too confident about the prospects of a “red wave” election in the fall.
“Democrats are certainly still in line for a serious thumping this year, but it is now possible to see how — if the economy and virus keep moving in the right direction — divisions of this kind of ugliness could screw up Republicans’ chances at a big win,” he said.
What to read tonight
Nate Cohn analyzes recent polling that found that “the desire to return to normalcy has approached or even overtaken alarm about” Covid-19 itself.
Prosecutors released a “revealing glimpse of their strategy” for the first trial stemming from the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol, Alan Feuer reports. Their evidence includes surveillance videos and text messages.
The Secret Service escorted Doug Emhoff, the second gentleman, out of Dunbar High School in Washington, D.C., because of a bomb threat. The school was also evacuated.
Fox News was of one mind on Monday evening: America needs a movement of disaffected truckers just like the one in Canada.
Tucker Carlson used his monologue to celebrate the Canadian truckers, whose protests against vaccine mandates have paralyzed Ottawa and threatened the flow of trade with the United States. Tech companies, Carlson complained, are censoring their online organizing efforts while mainstream media outlets are supposedly ignoring the story.
“Instead, everyone in New York and D.C. and Los Angeles is cheering on the national security state and its alliance with Silicon Valley as they come together to crush a human rights movement,” he said.
Laura Ingraham used the truckers mainly to criticize CNN for its coverage of what she lauded as “Canada’s expanding freedom convoy.”
“The regime media knows exactly what’s happening in Canada and it scares the heck out of them,” Ingraham said. “Just think: Honking, really loud honking, may keep Joe from his 12 hours of sleep a night.”
It’s hard to say how many people are ready to take up the cause.
One of the main groups calling for a truckers’ protest in Washington, which calls itself “The People’s Convoy,” has nearly 50,000 followers on Facebook and another 40,000 on Telegram. Another group, “Convoy to D.C. 2022,” had more than 130,000 members before Facebook shut it down for violating the site’s policies on vaccine misinformation. Several truckers’ groups have announced plans to drive to Washington to protest vaccine mandates on March 1.
Canadian researchers have linked the truckers to conspiracy theorists and anti-government extremists, and have noted how much of the support for their sit-in has come from the United States.
Jared Holt, a researcher who studies extremist movements, said the online activity appeared to be aimed at “manufacturing sentiment” that wasn’t fully organic. It reminded him of the recent demonstration by anti-vaccine advocates on the National Mall, which drew a modest crowd in late January.
“They’re hoping they can animate the imagination of similarly minded people here,” Holt said.
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