If the losing party can’t accept defeat, the whole enterprise of electoral democracy is finished. Two-party competition means each party taking turns depending on what the voters want in any given election.

President Trump himself will never acknowledge this. But the Republican Party institutionally must. That is the critical challenge facing Senate Republicans and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.): When and how decisively will they pull the plug on Trump’s desperate effort to force upon the nation a second term that he did not earn from the electorate?

If the United States is to adhere to its foundational premise that governments derive their just powers from the consent of the governed, then Senate Republicans as a party in government need to recognize President-elect Joe Biden’s inauguration not merely as a fait accompli they cannot undo but instead the actual choice that the voters genuinely made in this election.

It’s true that some leading Democrats attempted to negate the validity of Trump’s own election in 2016. Hillary Clinton conceded quickly and graciously in the immediate aftermath of the voting. But in a 2019 CBS interview, she unjustifiably called Trump an “illegitimate president” because of “voter suppression and voter purging” as well as “hacking” and “false stories.”

Even worse, former president Jimmy Carter went so far as to say, that same year, that Russia’s interference “if fully investigated would show that Trump didn’t actually win the election in 2016.” In repeating the point, Carter didn’t even hedge: “He lost the election, and he was put into office because the Russians interfered on his behalf.”

This is wrong. Trump genuinely won the votes in 2016 that put him in the White House, whatever the reasons the voters had for preferring him to Clinton, as most Democrats accepted. Yes, there was outrageous voter suppression in Wisconsin, but not enough to make the difference in that state, much less in Michigan and Pennsylvania, which Clinton also would have needed for an electoral college majority. It is irresponsible for Clinton, Carter or anyone else to deny the validity of Trump’s 2016 victory.

But we learned in grade school about two wrongs. And what Trump is doing now is much more wrong, because an outgoing president’s attempt to delegitimate the mandate of an immediate successor is inherently more corrosive.

Going forward, all of us should resist the temptation for tit-for-tat score-settling. Instead, we should reinvigorate shared premises for how to identify an authentic electoral winner, based on an honest assessment about the ballots cast, even when — painful as it might be to admit — more of them were cast for the other side.

By this standard, the GOP must get to the point where it publicly congratulates Biden on being the one the voters wanted. If the party needs a reminder on how to do this, the gold standard remains from its own past: In 1884, after searching for two weeks for Tammany-type fraud, Republicans acknowledged it was “a lack of votes, not a theft of votes” that caused James G. Blaine’s loss to Grover Cleveland.

I remain unshaken in my confidence that, when Congress meets on Jan. 6 to perform its constitutional duty, it will properly announce Biden as the election’s winner.

The remaining questions are how many Republican senators will vote for Biden if the matter is put to a vote through challenges to slates of electors — and, more fundamentally, how many Republicans will forthrightly acknowledge the authenticity of Biden’s election.

There is no basis for denying this. Even the most conservative of election law commentators have joined the chorus to observe that courts don’t overturn elections without adequate evidence of invalid votes that actually made a difference in the outcome. The Trump campaign has provided no proof of that kind in any state, much less the three necessary to deny Biden an electoral college majority.

This president’s intransigence is having costly spillover effects. It is taking a toll on Republican voters’ confidence in the election results. It is causing the kind of corrosive behavior that occurred in Michigan, where the Wayne County canvassing board split 2-2 over certifying its vote tallies, despite it being obvious that Biden has won the state by a margin more than 10 times Trump’s 2016 win. The two local Republicans quickly came to their senses, but not before Team Trump tweeted about its “huge win” — and now it seems they to want to revert to rank partisanship.

The longer McConnell and his colleagues allow this unnecessary uncertainty about the election’s outcome to fester, the worse off our democracy will be.

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