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Just Freakin’ Say It Already
Pussyfooting around Trump's "stolen election" lie was never going to help any candidate but Trump. His primary opponents need to finally tell the truth.
There’s been a lot of discussion lately about whether the quickly approaching debates will make any real difference in the GOP presidential-primary race. According to the polls, Donald Trump has maintained an enormous summer lead over his competitors. At this point, in fact, more than half of Republican voters say the twice-impeached former president (who’s currently facing multiple criminal charges) is their choice to be the party’s nominee. Trump’s closest competitor, Governor Ron DeSantis, has fallen to about 15%.
Trump’s opponents were always going to have a huge uphill battle, of course. The GOP no longer functions as a serious political party with intelligible ideas or even an identifiable platform. It’s now mostly a grievance-heavy personality cult led by Trump himself. Expecting the base to suddenly start holding its chieftain to anything resembling standards, after refusing to for the last seven years (while purging from its ranks anyone who tried), was little more than wishful thinking.
Still, those serious about defeating Trump need to try, and it’s been clear on the ground in early primary states what one of their biggest obstacles is: the enduring delusion that Trump was never defeated by Joe Biden in the first place.
We’ve seen clip after clip after clip of Mike Pence on the campaign trail being heckled by Trump supporters as a “traitor” and “sellout” who refused to “uphold the Constitution” on January 6. Pence recently engaged one of the agitators, offering this explanation of why the exact opposite is true:
Look, let me take you to January 20th, 2017. I put my left hand on Ronald Reagan’s Bible and I raised my right hand and I swore an oath to support and defend the Constitution of the United States of America, and it ended with a prayer, ‘so help me God.’ My son, who’s a captain in the United States Marine Corps reminded me one time that it’s the exact same oath that he took. It was a promise I made to the American people, it was a promise I made to almighty God.
Now I know you might have a different impression about what my duties and responsibilities were on January 6, and I’m happy to talk to you about it. The truth is that states conduct our elections, they do, and once Iowa certifies the elections, when there are questions you can go to court…
But when all that was done, if you read Article Two of the Constitution, which I recommend you very respectfully, Article Two says once the states send their electoral votes to the Congress of the United States, the vice president, as president of the Senate, will preside over a joint session of Congress, and what it says is at that joint session the electoral votes shall be opened and shall be counted. It doesn’t say ‘may,’ it doesn’t say you can send them back to the states, it doesn’t say you can reject votes, even though my former running mate and many of his outside lawyers told me that that authority was there. I knew there never was. I mean look, there’s almost no idea more un-American than the notion that any one person could pick the American president.
Conservative columnist David French called Pence’s response, which we’ll assuredly hear some variation of at the upcoming debates, a “great answer.” I’m not sure I agree. I think it was an accurate answer, but it was so long-winded, carefully worded, and narrowly focused on Pence’s procedural role that a broader, far more important point was glossed over: Trump lost. Voters chose Joe Biden over him. End of story.
Pence and others in the race continue to struggle with relaying that blunt, honest message. The reason why is no mystery. They don’t want to further upset a duped MAGA base that they believe they’ll need if they are to have any future in Republican politics. Some, of course, want that future to be next year’s nomination, and after that the presidency. Others are hoping for a spot in a second Trump administration. Either way, their reluctance to speak the cold, hard truth on this matter is guided by fear.
DeSantis seemed to finally take the plunge earlier this month when he said that the 2020 election “theories that were put out did not prove to be true.” He even said the magic words: “Of course [Trump] lost.”
But not so fast. As conservative columnist Ramesh Ponnuru pointed out in the Washington Post, “DeSantis explained that what he meant by saying Trump lost is that Joe Biden took the oath of office in January 2021. That leaves open the possibility that Biden stole the election.”
“Here’s what DeSantis still hasn’t said…” Ponnuru added. “The votes in the 2020 election were legally cast and accurately counted, and Biden won more of them, both nationally and in the key states. Trump is either lying or deluded when he says otherwise.”
Chris Christie’s been saying that loud and clear, but he may end up being the only candidate willing to do so who’s garnished enough support to get on the debate stage. If it’s just him, the others will have forfeited one of the strongest arguments they could possibly make for themselves: America has already rejected Trump. Why go down that road again? He can’t win, but I can… and I will.
Granted, that argument may not be the slam-dunk it could have been a few months ago, with recent national polls showing Biden and Trump running neck and neck. Still, a layman's presentation of the political situation should be relatively easy to give. It just takes a little nerve.
Polls can be a good gauge of public sentiment at a particular moment in time, but election results are far better at demonstrating who and what Americans want (and don’t want). And the fact of the matter is that Trump has cost Republicans an enormous number of seats over the last three election cycles (their worst losses in about 70 years), including the presidency, a House majority, and two Senate majorities.
Most of those losses came before Trump’s efforts to overturn U.S. democracy, as well as his provocation of the January 6 insurrection. All of them happened before Trump was met with a multitude of criminal charges for actions very few (even on his side of the aisle) are arguing he didn’t commit. In 2020, over 81 million voters chose Joe Biden over Trump, not because they were terribly impressed with Biden, but because they had had enough of Trump.
How many of those people, after everything they’ve witnessed Trump say and do since he lost, will change their mind about him, and now throw him their support? Will any?
That’s an argument Trump’s primary competitors should be making over and over (even with the distinct possibility that a good portion of the base no longer cares about winning), but few are. Again, it’s because it would require them to unequivocally reject the notion that the last election was stolen.
“Acquiescing in the myth of a stolen election undercuts everything they say about electability,” Ponnuru writes of Trump’s opponents. “More than that, it makes Trump a kind of incumbent. It cements his position as the leader of the party and casts his opponents as undermining the party.”
Pussyfooting around this topic has only helped Trump. No one else in the race has benefited from it; the country sure as hell hasn’t. Republicans should have dealt with this problem years ago by handing Trump an entirely appropriate and well-deserved impeachment conviction, but that didn’t happen. Now the responsibility lies with those trying to best the former president for the nomination.
The candidates who have yet to step up on this issue, and say what they all know to be true, have another opportunity — perhaps their last — to do it at the debates. If they’re serious about winning, they must do it.
I mean, at this point, what do they have to lose?