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There is a wrenching debate going on inside the Republican Party over the simplest of questions: Should the party look backward or forward? Just because a question is simple does not mean the answer is easy, and indeed, as the 2022 and 2024 elections approach, the backward-or-forward question is extraordinarily difficult for the GOP.
As with a lot of issues Republicans face these days, the question is really about former President Donald Trump. Should the party go along with his fixation on the 2020 election, or should it move on?
GOP politicians who want to move on face a lot of resistance from two very different quarters. First, the Democratic Party very much wants to keep talking about 2020. After all, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi created the Jan. 6 committee in part to keep the idea of a Trump-Republican “insurrection” alive into the 2022 midterm elections. Democrats want to talk about 2020 because they believe they can use it to defeat Republicans.
And then there is Trump, who in recent days has been using his press releases — the equivalent of his old tweets — to dwell on various 2020 issues. The most incendiary, and revealing, of those releases came on Jan. 30, when Trump claimed Vice President Mike Pence had the authority to throw out the electoral votes from some states that Joe Biden won when Congress certified Electoral College results on Jan. 6, 2021. “Unfortunately, he didn’t exercise that power,” Trump said of Pence, “he could have overturned the election!”
For months, some of Trump’s defenders have said he did not seek to overturn the election. But now Trump has said just that.
So again — two people want to focus on 2020: Nancy Pelosi and Donald Trump. Most voters, on the other hand, are not terribly interested. That puts Republicans who want to move forward in a bind.
The GOP got all tangled up in the backward-or-forward question during its recent Republican National Committee meeting in Salt Lake City. There the delegates passed a resolution of censure against GOP Reps. Liz Cheney and Adam Kinzinger, who are Pelosi’s choices to be the Republicans on the Jan. 6 committee. Instead of providing the diversity of opinion and approaches one expects from a bipartisan committee, Cheney and Kinzinger appear to be in lockstep with Chairman Bennie Thompson and Pelosi’s other appointees.
What got under the RNC’s skin was not that Cheney and Kinzinger voted to impeach Trump in January 2021. The censure resolution did not even mention that, and in fact, eight other Republicans voted to impeach Trump and have not faced negative actions from either the House leadership or the national party. Instead, two things irritated the RNC: First, that Cheney and Kinzinger “have demonstrated … that they support Democrat efforts to destroy President Trump more than they support winning back a Republican majority in 2022,” to quote the resolution; and second, that they have taken the Democrats’ side in disputes over the Jan. 6 committee’s “disregard for minority rights, traditional checks and balances, due process and adherence to other precedent and rules of the U.S. House.”
So yes, there was reason for the Republican Party to be annoyed by Cheney and Kinzinger. But Cheney and Kinzinger appear to be obsessed with the events of November 2020 through January 2021. The Republican Party, and the voters, do not share that obsession. By taking time to debate Cheney’s and Kinzinger’s actions, and then by voting to censure them, the RNC got sucked into the Democratic-Trump effort to focus on 2020. The RNC’s goal is to win Republican control of Congress in 2022 and the White House in 2024. That requires a relentless focus on 2022 and 2024. When someone wants to divert attention from those goals and focus on 2020, RNC officials should ask whether that person really wishes Republicans success.
Now, some GOP officials are pushing back on the issue. “The focus right now needs to be forward, not backward,” said Sen. John Thune, the second-ranking Republican in the Senate. “I just think right now, if we want to win the elections in November, there are better things for us to be focused on.”
For his part, Trump is flailing away at what he calls the “Unselect Committee.” And what about Republican voters? All indications are they are intensely — intensely — interested in defeating the Biden administration agenda.
They are deeply concerned about inflation, about crime, about border security, about what their children are taught in school, about spending, about national security — in short, about opposing everything President Joe Biden and his Democratic allies are doing. They are not as intensely interested in relitigating the 2020 election.
That makes sense. But to look toward the future, Republicans have to avoid the traps being set by Pelosi and the Democrats, and by the former Republican president. For the GOP, the backward-or-forward question will be the most difficult, and the most consequential, issue in coming months and years.