WEIGHING IN – If there was any doubt about why U.S. Rep. Elise Stefanik hasn’t addressed the chaos that surrounds newly elected Long Island congressman George Santos, we got our answer last Tuesday.
When the U.S. House of Representatives convened early last week for what’s typically a pro forma vote to elect a speaker, Stefanik was the member to stand up and nominate U.S. Rep. Kevin McCarthy of California. Stefanik’s optimistic tweet linking to video of her speech remained the most recent post in her feed on Friday, sitting there like a camera on the face of a kid who is about to discover that the prince in “Frozen” is actually the bad guy.
Stefanik had remained mum on Santos, despite her campaigning with him and despite the fact that she’s pictured with Santos at the top of his Twitter profile for the same reason McCarthy had stayed silent.
While some Republicans felt comfortable chastising Santos, who is now the subject of multiple investigations stemming from a flurry of fabrications and alleged transgressions, Stefanik and McCarthy felt they had no choice. Because even if Santos isn’t who he said he was, even if he never worked at Goldman Sachs or Citigroup, even if he isn’t Jewish and even if he never employed anyone who was killed during the horrific Pulse Nightclub shooting, Santos remained a reliable “Yes” vote on McCarthy’s speakership.
And for high-ranking politicians whose political futures depend on the path of their party, that “Yes” outweighs everything else.
But after a frustrating week in which our government was held hostage by fewer than two dozen far-right Republicans, leaders such as McCarthy and Stefanik have to be questioning the identity of their party. As a result, they should be looking inward to reckon with their own culpability in steering us toward this moment.
It now appears that Santos is a pathological liar who has fabricated much about who he is. But McCarthy and Stefanik haven’t been guided by any strong moral compasses, either. Now, their political shapeshifting motivated by personal ambition — a playbook amplified by former President Donald Trump — not only helped lead to the election of a fraud like Santos, it led to this moment in our governing. It led to all of us being at the mercy of a few chaos-loving congresspeople who delighted in the disruption they caused.
As an aside, it’s worth pointing out that Democrats, too, have fractured into opposing sects. But to date, whether under the leadership of Nancy Pelosi or Hakeem Jeffries, their party members have remained largely unified.
Last week’s dysfunction in Congress, during which a few ultraconservative members of the House held up the election of a speaker until finally allowing McCarthy to win the role on the 15th try, has long been portended. In a May 2016 tweet from Sen. Lindsey Graham that’s been circulating this week, the South Carolina senator wrote: “If we nominate Trump, we will get destroyed. . .. . ..and we will deserve it.”
How prescient those words now seem. Trump’s appeal for many Republican voters in 2016 was his status as a political outsider who would “drain the swamp” and his unfiltered id that was unafraid to take on political correctness and the “RADICAL Left.”
Facts never mattered to Trump.
As recently released tax records affirm, the former president’s public image as a skilled real estate tycoon is now known to be a facade. Far from being a well-run empire, Trump’s businesses were more shambolic than the story he sold. As Trump was being portrayed as a sharp C-Suite executive on reality TV, his real estate properties were hemorrhaging money, and he was relying on a kind of financial jiu jitsu to often pay less in federal taxes than you and me.
Stefanik wasn’t initially a Trump fan. As outlined in an exhaustive look at her political transformation in a Dec. 31 New York Times piece, which followed a similar profile in the Washington Post, Stefanik initially detested Trump. She reportedly called him a “whack job” and “insulting to women,” and she first favored Gov. John Kasich, a moderate Republican from Ohio, in the 2016 Republican primary. (Her team denied to the New York Times the account of her support for Kasich.)
But Stefanik was quick to pivot and to abandon any principles she had in opposing a bombastic, misogynistic and untrustworthy president once she realized there was power in becoming a Trump loyalist. (For her part, Stefanik has defended her choices as staying in line with her constituents in New York’s 21st Congressional District.) McCarthy’s ascendancy followed a similar model of shifting his allegiances in whatever way could earn him another rung up the ladder, whether that meant appealing to the Tea Party or Trump.
The New York Times’ report on Stefanik details a 2018 campaign event at Fort Drum, ahead of which Stefanik worked hard to convince Trump to attend only to have him show up and mispronounce her last name.
Still, after that event, she saw the influence that could come via an association with Trump. Then, the successful fundraising that came after Stefanik’s defense of Trump during impeachment inquiries further pulled her into the former president’s orbit, the piece chronicled.
Stefanik is now “ultra-MAGA” and “proud of it.”
She was willing to completely shift her identity as a moderate, reasonable Republican into a MAGA warrior if it translated into more power. And it absolutely did. In 2021, Stefanik replaced former U.S. Rep. Liz Cheney as the Republican House Conference Chair after Cheney became much maligned in her own party for supporting Trump’s impeachment following the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol.
Trump loyalty paid off for Stefanik.
But it’s clearly come at a cost.
Stefanik, the embattled McCarthy, Trump and other Republican leaders have spent the last few years encouraging chaotic politicians. They’ve fomented falsehoods about the 2020 election, they allowed conspiracy theories to run amok and they’ve helped sow doubt that has destabilized our entire system.
This embracing of lies and metamorphoses motivated by political ambition is exactly how you arrive at a candidate like George Santos being elected to Congress. It’s how you arrive at a Republican Party that now lacks a clear identity. For example, how do you make sense of this? Marjorie Taylor Greene, the Georgia congresswoman who openly espouses some elements of the QAnon conspiracy, was actually a voice of reason this week in her support of McCarthy by saying she wants Congress to be able to get to work.
We should all be wary of what that work will look like, though, now that McCarthy has shown he’s willing to capitulate and make nearly every concession he can to get “Yes” votes from his party’s most extreme members. There’s reason to worry about how far things will go and whether basic functions, such as funding the government and paying our country’s bills, are now in serious jeopardy.
There is a path forward, however. Ahead of Friday’s speaker voting, U.S. Rep. Matt Gaetz of Florida, who’d been helping to lead the Republican rebels’ charge, said on Fox News that he’d resign if Republicans worked with Democrats to find a moderate consensus candidate for speaker.
That bluff, which arose out of Gaetz’s confidence that such a deal wouldn’t be reached, represents a different option for Republicans. At the moment, they are beholden to the far-right of their party because they hold a narrow majority in the House and are unwilling to compromise with Democrats. But if they were to stop viewing Democrats as the enemy — and if Democrats are willing to stop viewing Republicans in the same negative light — there’s a possible majority that stands to accomplish some reasonable objectives.
One of those reasonable objectives should be to find a way to make Santos forfeit his seat. Seemingly insignificant and symbolic as such a pressure campaign may be, the move would have the effect of restoring some integrity to a Congress that no longer reflects the principles of compromise that should be central to our democracy.
I’m not sure what this consensus voting bloc would be called, or who exactly is the right person to lead it, but I’m confident of this: When its members look in the mirror, they’d at least recognize the faces staring back at them.
Columnist Andrew Waite can be reached at [email protected] and at 518-417-9338. Follow him on Twitter @UpstateWaite.