Jonathan Bernstein: Even mainstream Republicans are pretty extreme

Jonathan Bernstein, Bloomberg Opinion on

Published in Op Eds

The U.S. House of Representatives on Wednesday passed its updated version of the Electoral Count Act, the archaic and loophole-filled law governing how Congress certifies presidential elections. The Senate has yet to act on its own version, which is similar, but with 10 co-sponsors from each party, it appears to be well on its way to passage, and there’s every possibility that a reconciled bill will be signed into law later this year.

So much for the good news. The less good news is what the House passage of the bill — on close to a party-line vote, with only nine Republicans joining all Democrats — says about the state of the Republican Party. As it turns out, when it comes to defending democracy, so-called mainstream Republicans may not be so different from extremist Republicans.

This difference was the topic of intense debate in the Democratic Party this year. The party supported some extreme candidates in Republican congressional primaries, on the theory that they would be easier to defeat in the general election. Critics said the practice was irresponsible and risked the possibility of putting people who would be a threat to U.S. democracy in Congress.

Wednesday’s vote doesn’t completely end that debate. But it does demonstrate that most mainstream Republicans are not interested in defending the Constitution — either because they are radicals themselves, or because they won’t stand up to those who are.

The House debate of the Electoral Count Act demonstrated exactly why Democrats may have been justified in their meddling. With only a handful of exceptions, most notably Wyoming’s Liz Cheney, a cosponsor of the bill, Republicans rejected the bill. Indeed, the party whipped against it, indicating that opposing this reform — opposing a key defense against a future coup — was an official party position.

Why? Few Republicans who participated in the House debate cited anything about the bill itself. Most of them talked more about inflation, crime, migrants and how President Joe Biden was ruining the nation. This bill, they said, was an attempt to distract Americans from their real problems. Earlier reporting by Axios offered a more plausible reason: It quoted Republicans who opposed the bill because Cheney supported it. And their problem with Cheney is that she voted to impeach Donald Trump, and has participated in the Jan. 6 committee. If that’s really their reason, what does that say about them?

The obvious implication is that some of those Republicans are perfectly happy with a vulnerable election process — and the rest aren’t willing to fight for one. Not against Trump; not against Jim Jordan and Matt Gaetz and Marjorie Taylor Greene and the other radicals who are the real leaders of the House Republicans; not against Sean Hannity and Tucker Carlson and Mark Levin and the other leaders of the Republican Party.

So the problem isn’t just the extremists — it’s the rank-and-file Republican politicians. It means that there’s just not much of a difference between a House Republican conference with a few more radicals and one with a few more mainstream members.

During the floor debate, many Republicans questioned why the bill was being rushed. The answer is obvious: There’s a very good chance that Republicans will have a House majority in January, and no one expects them to move similar legislation. (1)


Yes, things are different on the Senate side, where more Republicans may vote for it. Still, there’s a good argument that the more House Republicans are elected, the more U.S. democracy is in danger. (And for whatever it’s worth, in all six districts where Democrats meddled and the more extreme Republican was nominated, the Democrat is likely to win.)

Meanwhile, it remains absolutely critical that House Democrats and the bipartisan Senate group resolve their differences and pass a bill quickly. Well-written laws may not be able to completely stop coup plotters. But there’s no excuse for not making it as difficult as possible for them.


(1) To be sure, Democrats may think there's some very marginal advantage in moving the bill before the election rather than waiting for it to pass in a lame-duck session. Realistically, however, it's extremely unlikely that this bill will get very much attention in the media, and even if it did a day or two of media attention to a technical-sounding bill in mid-September is hardly going to move voters in November.



Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering politics and policy. A former professor of political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University, he wrote A Plain Blog About Politics.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

©2022 Bloomberg L.P. Visit bloomberg.com/opinion. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.


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