By Susan Milligan
It was, President-elect Joe Biden said solemnly, “one of the darkest days in the history of our nation,” a day when pro-Trump insurrectionists stormed the Capitol and occupied the chamber where both defenders and detractors of the president found themselves jointly threatened by a marauding mob.
But if that day was a low point in a tumultuous five years of a campaign and presidency that served to further divide an already partisan Congress, it may also have been just the jolt lawmakers needed to remember why they were sent to Washington in the first place.
Republicans who just hours before had been defiantly challenging an Electoral College vote count to make Biden the next president backed down, looking shell-shocked as they said this was no longer the best way to go. Trump’s golf pal, Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, called on his colleagues to accept the election results and on Thursday tweeted laudatory comments about Biden’s response to what lawmakers called an attempted coup.
For Biden, the GOP’s retreat leaves a bright opening for him as he prepares to deal with the pandemic and a struggling economy in a country where a significant portion of Americans believe Trump really won the election.
It won’t be a honeymoon, as presidents tended to enjoy during a more quaint, and less divided, time in history. But the frightening reality check lawmakers and the public got on Jan. 6 is likely to make things a bit easier for the incoming president, experts say.
“A number of people found yesterday that the emperor has no clothes. They woke up this morning and were breathing, even though they didn’t go along with Trump” when Congress finished counting the Electoral College votes in Biden’s favor after 3 a.m. Thursday, says Harrison Hickman, a veteran Democratic strategist. “It was a revelation – that they could survive, being independent of his wishes.”
For the public, the fact that Congress went back into session Wednesday night as soon as the building was secured sends a strong message that government works, Hickman says. And as for Biden himself, “now, even more than before, he is seen as a breath of fresh air,” a soothing voice for both voters and members of Congress.
“This gives Joe Biden an opening, but more importantly, it plays right into who Joe Biden is,” says Moe Vela, who worked for Biden when he was Barack Obama’s vice president. “Is there going to be a ‘Kumbaya,’ holding-hands moment on Jan. 20th? No, this doesn’t happen overnight. But he’s the right man at the right time, with the right personality” to rebuild relationships with the Hill, Vela says.
Biden was a U.S. senator for 36 years and developed friendships and working relationships on both sides of the aisle. Still, Trump had a very strong hold over Hill Republicans, and people like Graham – who had once called Biden a good friend and a good man – still delayed acknowledging Biden’s win, let alone issuing a rote congratulatory statement.
Cracks in the GOP wall were already developing as post-election Trump got more and more punishing and aggressive in his behavior and rhetoric.
Less than 24 hours after the rioters entered the Capitol, Republicans were bailing out on the president who demands personal loyalty from those who want to work for him or do business with him. Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao resigned, as did a number of White House staffers. At last one Republican congressman called for the invocation of the 25th Amendment to get Trump out of office even before his term ends Jan. 20.
Those Republicans who continued to feed Trump’s fantasy that the election was “stolen” from him are enduring some shunning themselves: Sen Josh Hawley of Missouri, a young junior senator with presidential ambitions, has been the target of withering criticism, with Sen. Mitt Romney of Utah shooting eye-daggers at Hawley during floor debate and a revered former senator from Missouri delivering the most damning edict.
“Supporting Josh and trying so hard to get him elected to the Senate was the worst mistake I ever made in my life,” former Sen. John Danforth, a Republican, told The St. Louis Post-Dispatch.
Republicans are also blaming Trump for their recent losses of two U.S. Senate seats in Georgia – flips that will relegate the GOP to the minority after Trump leaves office.
The events of Jan. 6, 2021, which Democrats and some Republicans blamed on Trump’s inciting words, divided the party even more, giving Biden a chance to peel off some GOP lawmakers as he negotiates policy.
As awful as Wednesday was, “I actually agree with the hypothesis that this is a real opportunity for him,” says Tom Schwartz, a history professor at Vanderbilt University. “I think he can come in and appeal to unity, to the sense of wanting calm.”
Biden still has to deal with a segment of the populace that is still very loyal to Trump and may punish those lawmakers who don’t show the same fealty, analysts say.
A YouGov poll released Jan. 7, 2021 found that a plurality of Republicans – 45% – actively supported the Capitol riot, with 43% opposing it. Among all voters, 71% said they “strongly” or “somewhat” oppose the criminal action.
Asked if the action – which Biden on Thursday described as domestic terrorism – was a threat to democracy, 27% of Republicans said they agreed compared to 62% of all registered voters who feel that way.
Those who back the storming of the Capitol may still be a minority of the public, but in some states and districts they may comprise a critical mass that will make their elected Republicans officials wary of defying Trumpism or helping Biden, says Bob Shrum, a longtime Democratic operative who worked in the Senate decades ago.
“These guys are going to respond to their base,” Shrum says. Soon-to-be Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, Kentucky Republican, is a shrewd politician, however, Shrum says, and will not thwart Biden on everything if he thinks it will hurt the party’s 2022 midterm chances.
“It’s going to be very difficult to stand in the way of economic relief and a vaccination program that will be much better than what we have now,” Shrum says.
Nor will the cohesion that comes from experiencing a frightening event together necessarily last for long, says Doug Heye, a former senior staffer for Republican House leadership. After 9/11, lawmakers bonded together against a foreign enemy but then separated again over the Iraq War, he notes.
“We were united and – boom – we were divided,” Heye says. The fact that those who laid siege on the Capitol on Wednesday were a domestic force makes it even less likely the event will have an enduring, unifying impact, he says, noting that House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, California Republican, condemned the violence but not the motivating personality behind it.
Trump critic-turned loyalist Sen. Marco Rubio, Florida Republican, was quick Thursday morning to tell people that “some misled you” about Trump’s chances to overturn the election. It took him a matter of hours to turn on Biden after the president-elect blamed Trump for inciting the riot.
“Biden’s speech .. plays right into the hands of divisiveness,” Rubio tweeted.
Familiar territory, for a U.S. Senate contemplating a post-Trump political world. – USNews