July 27, 2022 Wayne Northey

What in the World Happened to Elise Stefanik?

A Morality Tale

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July 26, 2022

Mr. Wehner is a senior fellow at the Trinity Forum.

image above: Damon Winter/The New York Times

WN: I have two close relatives who simply would be clueless about the “morality” in this tale. I deem that tragic. . .

excerpts:

There was a time in 2016 when Elise Stefanik, now the third-ranking Republican in the House, was so disgusted by Donald Trump, she would barely mention his name. Today he proudly refers to her as “one of my killers.”

She proved that again last month. In an effort to undermine confidence in the select committee investigating the violent assault on the Capitol, Ms. Stefanik said, “This is not a serious investigation. This is a partisan political witch hunt.” The committee, she said, is “illegitimate.” The hearings did not change her mind. In mid-July, before the final session planned for the summer, she referred to the committee as a “sham” and declared that “it is way worse than the impeachment witch hunt parts one and two.”

Maybe Ms. Stefanik was continuing to discredit the House committee because the evidence it has produced from Trump insiders — and the compelling way the evidence has been presented — has inflicted staggering damage on Mr. Trump, even though it might not prevent him from winning the Republican presidential nomination for a third straight time. Ms. Stefanik has failed in her efforts to sabotage the committee, but it’s not for lack of trying.

The transformation of Ms. Stefanik, who is 38, is among the most dramatic and significant in American politics. Her political conversion is a source of sadness and anger for several people I spoke to who were colleagues of hers — as I was in the White House of George W. Bush although I did not work with her directly — and who were, unlike me, once close to her. To them, Ms. Stefanik’s story is of a person who betrayed her principles and her country in a manic quest for power.

Looking at what happened with Ms. Stefanik is sad and disturbing because people who know her say she knows better. She was willing to be shaped by circumstances, even when circumstances drove her to ugly places and to embrace conspiracy theories. Contrast this with Ms. Cheney, who was stripped of her position in the Republican leadership and replaced by Ms. Stefanik. Ms. Cheney represents the people of Wyoming on many issues that are important to them, but she drew a line when it came to a fundamental attack on our democracy. She wouldn’t cross that line. Ms. Stefanik did.

To them, Ms. Stefanik’s story is of a person who betrayed her principles and her country in a manic quest for power.

Ms. Stefanik’s story is important in part because it mirrors that of so many other Republicans. They, like Ms. Stefanik, are opportunists, living completely in the moment, shifting their personas to advance their immediate political self-interests. A commitment to ethical conduct, a devotion to the common good and fidelity to truth appear to have no intrinsic worth to them. These qualities are mere instrumentalities, used when helpful but discarded when inconvenient.

Ms. Stefanik’s story is important in part because it mirrors that of so many other Republicans. They, like Ms. Stefanik, are opportunists, living completely in the moment, shifting their personas to advance their immediate political self-interests. A commitment to ethical conduct, a devotion to the common good and fidelity to truth appear to have no intrinsic worth to them. These qualities are mere instrumentalities, used when helpful but discarded when inconvenient.

[Those Republicans], like Ms. Stefanik, are opportunists, living completely in the moment, shifting their personas to advance their immediate political self-interests.

The politicians and former Bush administration officials I spoke to were worried that Republicans in Congress will conclude that Ms. Stefanik’s path to power is the one to emulate. The fast track to leadership is to enlist figures like Mr. Trump, Mr. Bannon and what one of my interlocutors called “the army of the base,” made up as it is of QAnon followers, Christian nationalists, right-wing talk radio aficionados and those who are determined to overturn elections.

The Bush administration figure who worked with Ms. Stefanik told me that her move into MAGA-dom was illustrative because it was representative of a larger problem. “In isolation, Elise is not a particular malefactor. She’s more a symptom than a disease.” But, this individual said, she and other Republicans “could have made a difference if they had had collective courage.”

They could have made the case against Mr. Trump’s malicious and unconstitutional conduct. They could have attempted to mold the sentiments of the Republican base in a healthy direction. But they refused.

Never mind Ms. Stefanik. “I affix a lot of the blame on the dozens and dozens of Republican leaders who acquiesced in what they knew to be wrong,” this person said.

During the Trump era, we saw a profound failure of leadership among Republican lawmakers when it came to calming down inflamed populist passions.

I don’t view Elise’s story as a success story. It won’t end well. Stories like this never do.Barbara Comstock, a Virginia Republican who served in Congress with Ms. Stefanik.

Wise observers of politics have told me that what leadership does in a populist moment like ours is to distinguish between legitimate and illegitimate grievances. Leaders speak to legitimate grievances and channel them in constructive ways through policies. Demagogues elevate illegitimate grievances and speak to them in reckless ways. In populist times, good leaders tamp down on the bad and elevate the good. Ms. Stefanik and many, many others chose to elevate the worst.

I affix a lot of the blame on the dozens and dozens of Republican leaders who acquiesced in what they knew to be wrong.–Barbara Comstock

This has inflicted a grave cost on the political profession, making Americans even more cynical about the whole political enterprise. I hate to think about the message it sends younger people who are thinking about running for office.

Someone who takes the route to power Ms. Stefanik has chosen “degrades and demeans public service,” Ms. Hoover told me. “Anyone who cares about our political system should find what she’s done so deeply offensive. We deserve better. Our country deserves better, and those who came before us deserve better.”

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