Ambition isn’t a demerit in politics — it’s a job requirement, along with its needier cousin, the instinct for self-preservation. The politician’s version of the Hippocratic oath is equally simple: “First, get elected.”

Still, the past five years — of Donald Trump’s alarming rise and regrettable persistence — have witnessed Republican lawmakers sublimating principle and decency to survival and advancement. Too many who know better have fallen meekly in line.

Meantime, as Trump has warped the Republican Party from belief system into loyalty test, the ordinary metrics of political measurement have given way. The primary axis on which to understand — and judge — party officials is no longer the spectrum of conservatism but the intensity of professed Trump devotion.

These realities offer the best frame for understanding the remarkable and depressing trajectory of Rep. Elise Stefanik (R-N.Y.), who appears poised to oust Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.) as GOP House conference chair. Stefanik is far from the only Republican to sell her soul to Trump, but she has to be counted among the most disappointing. Her transformation from Trump doubter to Trump champion is another sign of the end of ideology as a defining feature of the GOP.

The Harvard graduate who worked in George W. Bush’s White House, who prepped vice-presidential nominee Paul Ryan for his debate, who helped write the party’s 2012 platform, who backed John Kasich in the 2016 primary and opted out of attending the convention — that product of the GOP establishment dutifully appeared on pardoned Trump aide Stephen K. Bannon’s podcast Thursday in her bid for the number three leadership post.

There she vowed to “fully support” the bogus audit of the Arizona presidential election results, and praised Trump as the “strongest supporter of any president when it comes to standing up for the Constitution.”

None of this was foreseen. Stefanik represents a sprawling district in Upstate New York that twice voted for Barack Obama (plus John Kerry, Al Gore and Bill Clinton — twice) in previous contests. Democrats held the seat for 22 years until Stefanik won in 2014 — at 30, then the youngest woman ever elected to the House.

Whether out of conviction, belief that it was smart politics in a purplish district, or both, Stefanik at first distanced herself from Trump. During the 2016 campaign, she criticized his convention attack on a Gold Star military family, his “inappropriate, offensive comments” on the “Access Hollywood” tape, and his statements on NATO and Vladimir Putin.

Even after Trump took office (and outpolled Stefanik in her own district), she nonetheless condemned his “rushed and overly broad” travel ban, questioned his plan to build a border wall (“I don’t think that’s realistic”), criticized his reported comments on “shithole countries” as “wrong and contrary to our American ideals,” and said it was a “mistake” to withdraw from the Paris climate accord. Co-chair of the Tuesday Group of moderate House Republicans, Stefanik voted against Trump’s signature 2017 tax cut because its limitation on deductions for state and local taxes would hurt her constituents. She described herself as “an outspoken supporter” of the investigation by special counsel Robert S. Mueller III, and lamented Trump’s “attacks on law enforcement and the Department of Justice.”

Then came the first impeachment, and Stefanik’s overnight makeover into a Trump acolyte, lambasting the “Russia hoax” and assailing Democrats for pursuing the issue. “A new Republican star is born,” Trump tweeted — and the campaign contributions began pouring in, $13.3 million in the 2020 election cycle, compared to $2.8 million two years earlier. A newly launched PAC brought in an additional $1 million. That’s a lot of positive feedback for a politician to ignore.

During President Donald Trump's 2019 impeachment hearing, Rep. Elise Stefanik (R-N.Y.) said the inquiry was not about his tweets. (The Washington Post)

After the election, Stefanik doubled down. She signed a disgraceful friend-of-the-court brief supporting Texas’s bid to get the Supreme Court to overturn the election results. She voted along with 146 fellow House Republicans against certifying the election results for President Biden.

Longtime Stefanik observers suggest she understands that survival in this new GOP requires either making accommodations to the reality of Trumpism or consigning yourself to irrelevance in the party. “She’s too intelligent to be a convert in the dyed-in-the-wool sense,” said a person who has known Stefanik for years. “Most people who know Elise say they don’t recognize her.”

The richest irony of Stefanik replacing Cheney is that Cheney is the real conservative of the two. Cheney’s voting record is not only more conservative than Stefanik’s, but also she has voted more often with Trump than Stefanik has.

There has been some agitation on this front. “Elise Stefanik is NOT a good spokesperson for the House Republican Conference,” tweeted the conservative Club for Growth. “She is a liberal with a 35% [Club for Growth] lifetime rating, 4th worst in the House GOP. House Republicans should find a conservative to lead messaging and win back the House Majority.”

It would be a gratifyingly Shakespearean finale if Stefanik ended up losing her soul and the House conference post. Don’t get your hopes up. He Who Must Be Obeyed has bestowed on Stefanik “my COMPLETE and TOTAL Endorsement.”

In Trump’s GOP, that’s all that matters.

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