The GOP stunt over the Electoral College will hurt the country and the party.
As Americans like to tell the world, a hallmark of democracy is the willingness to accept defeat and the peaceful transfer of power. The tragedy of the last two presidential elections has been the refusal of partisans to accept defeat, and public trust in American self-government is eroding as a result.
Democrats in 2016 abused the FBI to push the Russia collusion myth and refused to accept Donald Trump’s legitimacy. Hillary Clinton still doesn’t. Now some Republicans are returning the disfavor by challenging the ritual counting of the Electoral College votes by the new Congress this week. Neither one justifies the other, and these columns have called out Democrats for their anti-democratic panic attack.
But the main issue now is that too many Republicans refuse to accept Mr. Trump’s defeat. More than 100 House Members and, as of this weekend, at least 12 Senators say they will formally object to the Electoral College count. This won’t change the result, though it will delay it as Congress spends up to two hours debating the objections to each state’s results. More corrosive will be the precedent and resulting political damage.
The leading culprit here is Mr. Trump, who as always refuses to accept responsibility for defeat. Recall that he also claimed the Iowa caucus result was stolen in 2016 when he lost to Ted Cruz. He’s now spinning conspiracy theories and election falsehoods daily on Twitter . He doesn’t seem to care what damage he does in promoting the myth of his victory.
The damage is spreading as Mr. Trump puts pressure on other Republicans to take up his lost cause. A dozen Senators have issued a statement demanding an Electoral Commission that would investigate claims of fraud and report within 10 days. The plan is to persuade state legislatures to overrule their Dec. 14 Electoral College certifications for Joe Biden. Throw the election into the House and Mr. Trump might salvage a second term.
Note that the Senators in their statement don’t allege specific acts of fraud. Instead they cite “allegations of fraud and irregularities” that feed “deep distrust” of the results—distrust they and the President are feeding.
The courts have rejected every Trump campaign attempt to intervene in the state results, often by judges appointed by the President. Mr. Trump’s lawyers make charges in public that they won’t even bring to a court, perhaps because they know there are penalties for speaking falsely before judges.
As Republican Sen. Pat Toomey has shown, the voting evidence from Pennsylvania is that Mr. Trump lost fair and square. Republicans down ballot did well. Mr. Trump did relatively better in Philadelphia in 2020 than in 2016, but he lost ground in the suburbs and his margin shrank even in some rural counties he won. Mr. Trump’s narrow loss was personal as voters decided they didn’t want four more years of his raucous governance.
The Electoral College gambit won’t work this week because House Democrats won’t go along, but imagine if Republicans ran the House and did. Eighty-one million Americans who voted for Mr. Biden would be disenfranchised by an insider scheme. The political response would be volcanic, and understandably so. Republicans would be crushed in the 2022 midterms, and Mr. Trump would promptly be impeached again. More Senate Republicans might vote to convict.
In our view this week’s exercise is also unconstitutional. The text of the original charter, elaborated by the 12th Amendment, gives state legislatures the power to appoint electors. The Vice President is charged to open the votes to be counted—nothing more.
The Electoral Count Act of 1887, which the House and Senate will act upon, is unconstitutional in giving Congress the ability to second-guess those state decisions. In stretching this law for a partisan exercise, Republicans are also giving Democrats more ammunition to use in their campaign to overturn the Electoral College in favor of a direct popular vote.
This is the fire Republicans are playing with, no matter their political calculation. Some may figure the vote Wednesday is merely symbolic; they can show solidarity with Mr. Trump’s voters and dodge a primary challenge in 2022. Sens. Josh Hawley and Ted Cruz are making their own presidential calculations for 2024. But the cost of this showboating will be more political cynicism, and a precedent that Democrats are sure to exploit in the aftermath of some future close election.
This is also a lousy political strategy for returning to power. By indulging Mr. Trump, Republicans are helping him divide the party and remain as a potential kingmaker. This could hurt what should be their very good chance to retake the House in 2022. As for 2024, good luck trying to court his support. He could run again for the nomination or, if he lost, run out of spite as a third-party candidate and guarantee a victory for Kamala Harris.
The GOP electoral focus now should be on minimizing the damage of the Biden-Nancy Pelosi agenda, and that includes making the case for reforms to restore trust in elections. This is mainly a state duty, but the national party can do better at exploiting the rules as they exist. That includes more consistent rules for securing the integrity of mail-in ballots, and a better litigation strategy before elections to block Democratic attempts to change rules at the last minute.
The good news is that many Republicans have been willing to stand up for proper constitutional conservatism. That includes the Federalist Society judges appointed by Mr. Trump who have made independent rulings based on the evidence. They have made their Democratic critics look foolish. Republicans in state legislatures have also stood on principle.
Credit as well to Senators Mitch McConnell, John Thune, Ben Sasse, Roger Wicker, Mr. Toomey, among others, who seem poised to support the election result as the Constitution advises. Their votes this week will look even better in the long light of history.
“The Wall Street Journal”
By The Editorial Board