Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, who isn’t known for having much by way of principles, surprised many observers with a statement about January 6th that rejected a recent characterization by the national party of it as “legitimate political discourse”:
“We saw it happen. 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.”
McConnell also took issue with the GOP’s censure of Reps. Liz Cheney and Adam Kinzinger, who are the only Republicans serving on the January 6 Committee:
“Traditionally, the view of the national party committees is that we support all members of our party, regardless of their positions on some issues. The issue is whether or not the R.N.C. should be sort of singling out members of our party who may have different views of the majority. That’s not the job of the R.N.C.”
These remarks come on the heels of a statement by former Vice President Mike Pence last week that rejected former President Trump’s argument that Pence could have changed the outcome of the election by decree. “President Trump is wrong,” Pence said. “The presidency belongs to the American people, and the American people alone. And frankly there is no idea more un-American than the notion that any one person could choose the American president,” he added.
Pushback also came by way of a statement from nearly 150 former Republican officials condemning the censure action and the national party’s characterization of January 6:
“Last week the Republican National Committee (RNC) made clear that it would rather be the ‘Big Lie’ party than the ‘Big Tent’ party by condemning two principled elected leaders while condoning conspiracies, lies, and violent insurrection. By censuring Congresswoman Liz Cheney and Congressman Adam Kinzinger for their role in investigating the January 6th attacks, they have betrayed the GOP’s founding principles and ceded control of a once-great movement to grifters and extremists. The RNC has also signaled that it no longer welcomes people of conscience.
The RNC’s description of the January 6th insurrection as “legitimate political discourse” is an affront to the rule of law, peaceful self-government, and the constitutional order. There can be no justifying the horrific attack that day, and we condemn the Committee for excusing the actions of men and women who battered police officers, ransacked our nation’s Capitol, called for hanging the Vice President of the United States, and sought to overturn a free and fair election.”
Critics quite correctly pointed out that McConnell had his chance to keep Trump permanently from power when the former president was impeached but Republicans in the Senate failed to support his conviction. They also correctly observed that Pence himself has not committed to cooperating with and speaking to the January 6 Committee about what he knows, although his top aides such as Chief of Staff Marc Short have been cooperating and providing testimony. And many rightly wonder why all these former Republican officials, who are so strong in their condemnations now, weren’t so vocal during the Trump years. It always seems to be former officials, with no skin in the game and no political future to worry about, who find the “courage” to stand up to Trump and the MAGA base.
Still, the statements are notable. Together they demonstrate a growing shift away from far-right rhetoric, election fraud conspiracies, and violence—even as the extremists dig in and grow more virulent in their attacks. The moves signal a willingness to challenge Trump and a strong desire for “establishment” Republicans to move past the 2020 election and January 6. This is in part self-serving: They are understandably eager to return to attacking President Biden’s agenda and record, as normal opposition politicians do. The recent unforced errors by the national Republican Party, which feels captive to the agenda of its far-right wing, have kept the media and public focused instead on the insurrection and the ongoing investigation.
Zooming out, however, these statements by McConnell, Pence and the former GOP officials are also indicative of a hard truth: Democrats cannot reform the GOP, it can only fix itself from within—or otherwise implode from internal pressures. Much as many on the left condemn the moral turpitude of McConnell and Pence, they and their conservative colleagues, including Cheney and Kinzinger, are the only real hope for the Republican Party to return from the brink.
In an era where there is scant common ground between partisans on anything, Democrats may be left standing with these few Republicans on very small patches. The dry earth happens to include the idea that no one leader can determine an election by decree and the principle that there must be a peaceful and orderly transfer of power. Without agreement on these two core concepts, we really don’t have much hope to keep our Republic. So when leaders across the aisle take the rare opportunity to stand up for these values, despite all their other differences, true American patriots should welcome their words and build upon that increasingly rare common interest.
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