Americans should find some of the recent statements from Republicans who refuse to overthrow the will of the people both heartening and infuriating. Their newfound willingness to stand up to President Trump and put country before party is lovely — and 11 months late.

Consider an extract of the 21-page memo from Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.): “By objecting to electoral slates, members are unavoidably asserting that Congress has the authority to overturn elections and overrule state and federal courts. Such objections set an exceptionally dangerous precedent, threatening to steal states’ explicit constitutional responsibility for choosing the President and bestowing it instead on Congress. This is directly at odds with the Constitution’s clear text and our core beliefs as Republicans.” She recounts in detail the multiple court cases and their holdings, demonstrating a full airing — and rejection — of specious claims of fraud. The reverence for objective reality, the structure of our government and the Founders’ intent is quite stirring.

Likewise, Sen. Patrick J. Toomey (R-Pa.) declared: “A fundamental, defining feature of a democratic republic is the right of the people to elect their own leaders. The effort by Senators Hawley, Cruz, and others to overturn the results of the 2020 presidential election in swing states like Pennsylvania directly undermines this right.” Bravo. Stand up for democracy!

So where was their reverence for the Constitution when presented with replete evidence of Trump’s betrayal of national security and abuse of the powers of the office to extort a foreign leader to cook up smears on now-President-elect Joe Biden? Now, Republicans can see through the smokescreen of excuses and lies. They see the absence of evidence of any fraud or irregularities. They can even recognize Trump’s outlandish behavior in trying to extort Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger to change his state’s vote count. Cheney found it “deeply troubling”; Toomey called it a “new low.” (One almost wonders if they would agree it is impeachable conduct.)

How different was Republicans’ grasp of reality and constitutional evaluation last January and February. Back then, they refused to acknowledge Trump’s plain words on the July 25, 2019, call transcript in which he told Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky that he needed “a favor.” Nor did they accept the uncontradicted testimony of patriots such as Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, Marie Yovanovitch, Fiona Hill and others making clear that Trump was throwing overboard national security concerns to further his own ambitions (although Cheney did denounce smears disputing Vindman’s loyalty). Back then, they could not bring themselves to recognize what was under their noses.

Their embrace of the Constitution was similarly defective. Back then, extorting a foreign leader was not apparent or serious or wrong. Back then, a “high crime and misdemeanor” was nowhere to be found. The result was that every Republican in the House voted against impeachment, and every Republican senator — save Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) on one of the two articles — voted to acquit him. The message they sent to Trump was unmistakable: Spin however you like. Manufacture doubts and conspiracies. Defy the essence of our constitutional system. Don’t worry. We’ve got your back. To borrow language from Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), he sure “learned" his lesson.

Imagine, instead, if the conservatives who now denounce Trump’s spin and refuse to allow him to savage our democracy had said something different last year. Imagine if they said: “We can read the text of that call. We are not so naive as to misunderstand what ‘a favor’ means. We have heard the evidence of patriotic public servants. The facts tell us that the president abused his powers, sought to do the Russians’ dirty work for them in weakening Ukraine and thereby violated his oath of office. If he extorted President Zelensky, how long will it be before he starts extorting American officials who balk at his commands?”

Gosh, they would have had a President Pence, who might have addressed the pandemic reasonably well and saved hundreds of thousands of lives, prevented an economic meltdown and accepted the results if he lost the election. The Republican Party would have been lauded as principled and possibly even competent. It’s a shame — a tragedy, really — that they could not find their spines until the last fortnight of Trump’s presidency.

Republicans love to shift blame for their egregious misdeeds onto Democrats. Hence, Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) bizarrely implores fellow Republicans not to “embolden those Democrats who want to erode further our system of constitutional government.” Huh?! Did I miss Democrats’ efforts to subvert the Constitution? Nope. This mess is all on the heads of Republicans. Republicans could have stopped Trump a year ago, spared the country his ineptitude and either won the presidency or conceded graciously. Instead, to paraphrase Cotton, they sought to “embolden those Republicans who want to erode further our system of constitutional government.”

We should be grateful Republicans have recovered their nerve. But we should not forget that they had the chance to behave responsibly a year ago and failed. The result was one of the most disastrous years in U.S. history. For that, they remain eternally responsible.

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