In speaking with my former Republican colleagues still in Congress, the one consistent refrain I hear is, “I’m just keeping my head down, trying not to get noticed.” Some have privately told me that serving in Congress during the Trump administration is “miserable.” Moreover, a colleague who has decided to call it quits confessed that he is doing so to try to salvage his political career by not being forever branded a “Trump Republican.”
Like Erickson’s anonymous interlocutor, these politicians are engaging in what can only be considered a sort of personal catharsis, not an act of political courage. A meaningful political statement would be on the record, direct to voters, and would substantively contribute to the national debate in which we are engaged regarding this president’s fitness for office. This isn’t that.
Few Republican officials today are willing to openly criticize the president, even if they have deeply held reservations about Trump’s ability to govern. They instead keep their laments private, their panic measured and their comments off the record. It’s a situation that needs to change. If you believe in serving your constituents, you are obliged to speak up and speak publicly.
It’s obvious why GOP lawmakers remain silent. This is Trump’s Republican Party, and his approval numbers among Republican voters sit close to 90 percent. Cross him, and you risk the wrath not only of the president but also of the electoral base that he has cultivated to wrest control of the party.
“Bob Corker . . . couldn’t get elected dog catcher,” Trump wrote about the senator from Tennessee. “Jeff Flake, weak on crime.” John McCain “let Arizona down .” Lisa Murkowski, likewise, “really let the Republicans, and our country, down .” Ben Sasse “looks more like a gym rat than a U.S. Senator.” With each of these statements, furiously typed into Twitter by the 45th occupant of the Oval Office and read by his 50 million-odd followers, the president targeted Republicans who’d criticized him or his agenda.
Knowingly or not, members of Congress choose one of two approaches to serving. Many strictly embrace their partisan identity, believing with honest conviction that they promised to uphold a party platform that voters back home affirmed and expected their representative to enforce. A smaller minority of lawmakers espouses the notion that though elected in partisan races, they hold a greater responsibility — that upon taking the oath of office they hold a public trust and are called upon to advance the nation’s broader interests, even if that means at times going against their party. This latter approach was the very essence of James Madison’s advocacy of a republican form of government. As he put it in Federalist No. 10, a chosen representative may “best discern the true interest of their country” and may provide a voice “more consonant to the public good.”
But both Madison and the congressman in the grocery store also understood a universal truth: You can’t take politics out of politics. There are consequences for speaking out. Former representative Marjorie Margolies-Mezvinsky, a Democrat in a GOP-heavy Pennsylvania district, famously cast the deciding vote in 1993 for Bill Clinton’s tax package only to be voted out of office one year later. McCain just last year gave a dramatic thumbs-down on the Senate floor to sink the Republican repeal of the Affordable Care Act and now is lampooned by many within his party as insufficiently partisan.
During my years in the House of Representatives, I witnessed lawmakers on the Democrats’ side of the aisle publicly vote on the House floor against Nancy Pelosi to be their leader, just as GOP members coordinated in 2015 to stop the coronation of Kevin McCarthy after the resignation of John Boehner. These members largely lost the support of their party’s fundraising arms, suffered immense criticism from their base and were often relegated to inconsequential committee work in Congress.
I, for my own part, called on Trump to drop out of the presidential race from the House floor in December 2015. I was also a Republican advocate for marriage equality; I embraced the science behind climate change; I voted against the Planned Parenthood investigation (demanded by some in Congress after allegations that the group sold fetal tissue); I advocated for reasonable gun-control measures; I pushed radical campaign finance reform. The result? The party apparatus that spent millions on my behalf in my first run for Congress happily spent zero in my last. It was not surprising that the party was content with losing my seat. I was no longer considered a team player, instead rightly seen as unwilling to prioritize the GOP’s political agenda over the policy concerns of the community I represented. Sure enough, I lost my race, and now I’m a political commentator rather than an elected official. Losing your office doesn’t mean you have to lose your voice.
My wife and I call it the “sleep well at night test.” Margolies-Mezvinsky, McCain and these other outspoken lawmakers have something that too many of today’s Republican leaders don’t: courage. They each went on the record, stood on principle and accepted the political consequences of doing what they believed reflected the right direction for the country.
We have a president who continually undermines our most basic institutions, attacking an independent judiciary and law enforcement agents, belittling a free press that has been a bedrock of our nation since its founding, normalizing an invective form of politics while injecting increasing volatility into our economic and national security, and flirting with a constitutional crisis caused by his own actions. Likewise, on policy, under this president we face rising economic inequality, health-care costs that continue to spike, a crippled immigration system, insufficient access to higher education, soaring deficits, and no response to national tragedies like those in Parkland and Las Vegas.
These are challenges worth confronting. For voters, it’s a political debate to which we contribute every other November. But for the 535 men and women on Capitol Hill, there lies a greater responsibility — a responsibility envisioned when our founders drafted the Constitution and a responsibility knowingly accepted by the members of Congress, all of whom swear true faith and allegiance to the same.
Which is why the casual supermarket conversation between a congressman and a journalist on background isn’t funny. It’s scandalous.
The nation deserves to know the honest convictions of its elected representatives, whether they be defenders or critics of this president — particularly at a time of such political uncertainty that many Americans fear the ramifications of an early termination of Trump’s presidency, especially because it’s been 20 years since we had a national conversation about the impeachment of a president. It is an anxious time for many Americans, and they deserve both on-the-record clarity from their representatives and assurances that Congress is capable of acting as a co-equal branch of government. The silence of these members of Congress is both a violation of the public trust and a reflection of their lack of personal and political mettle.
What too many lawmakers fail to see is this: If you don’t go on the record, your opinion doesn’t count. Worse, neither will your legacy. Refusing to publicly acknowledge your convictions simply affirms your unwillingness to act on them. And that is an indictment of you, not the president.
History rightfully discards those unwilling to take a stand, those who, in the face of a divided nation, shrink from controversy and seek refuge in the shadows of their indecision. Conversely, history memorializes those who speak with courage, those who, at defining national moments, put country over party.
So speak up. Your legacy will be richer for it. But know this — there will be no record of your legacy if you continue to whisper on background.