The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion How Elise Stefanik, ‘bright light’ of a generation, chose a dark path

Rep. Elise Stefanik (R-N.Y.) outside the Capitol on May 12. (Ting Shen/Bloomberg News)
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When John Bridgeland left a senior position in George W. Bush’s White House and joined Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government in the fall of 2004, an eager undergraduate got assigned to him as a student fellow and facilitator of his seminar.

“She was so excited because I was one of the few Republicans” then at the school’s Institute of Politics (IOP), Bridgeland told me this week. He remembered her as “extremely bright” and “through-and-through public-service-oriented.” She was so impressive in the seminar that he chose her to do a project with him selling Harvard students on the Peace Corps, AmeriCorps and other service opportunities. “I thought the world of her,” Bridgeland said.

The young woman’s name was Elise Stefanik.

Bridgeland secured her a job in the White House when she graduated in 2006, personally appealing to Chief of Staff Josh Bolten and other former colleagues to hire her. Bridgeland later encouraged her to run for Congress, which she did, successfully, in 2014 — and the New York Republican quickly established herself as a leading moderate. “I was so incredibly happy and proud,” Bridgeland said. “I viewed her as the bright light of her generation of leaders. She was crossing the aisle. She was focused on problem-solving. She had the highest character.”

And then, he said, “this switch went off.”

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Today, the world sees a much different Stefanik. This past week, after the racist massacre in Buffalo, attention turned to her articulation of “great replacement” theory, the white-supremacist conspiracy beliefs said to have propelled the alleged killer. Before that, she had been a prominent election denier, voting to overturn the 2020 results after the Jan. 6 insurrection, and then using the issue to oust and replace House Republican Conference Chairwoman Liz Cheney (Wyo.) because she refused to embrace President Donald Trump’s election lies.

Now, Stefanik has thrown her support, as the No. 3 House GOP leader, behind a proposal to “expunge” Trump’s impeachment for his role in the insurrection. She has joined a small group of extreme backbenchers as co-sponsors of the resolution, which casts doubt again on Joe Biden’s “seeming” win, citing “voting anomalies.” The resolution has no purpose (there’s no constitutional way to expunge impeachment) other than to sow further distrust of democracy.

It’s a story told a thousand times: Ambitious Republican official abandons principle to advance in Trump’s GOP. But perhaps nobody’s fall from promise, and integrity, has been as spectacular as the 37-year-old Stefanik’s. “I was just so shocked she would go down such a dark path,” said her former champion, Bridgeland. “No power, no position is worth the complete loss of your integrity. It was just completely alarming to me to watch this transformation. I got a lot of notes saying, ‘What happened to her?’ ”

The answer is simple: “Quest for power,” Bridgeland said. “But power without principle is a pretty dark place to go. She wanted to climb the Republican ranks and she has, but … she’s climbed the ladder on the back of lies about the election that are undermining trust in elections, putting people’s lives at risk.”

As a candidate in 2014, Stefanik refused to sign Grover Norquist’s no-tax pledge, a Republican purity test. Then the youngest woman ever elected to Congress, she became a co-chair of the Tuesday Group of Republican moderates. She boasted about being among the most bipartisan lawmakers. She criticized Trump’s “insulting” treatment of women, his “untruthful statements,” and his proposed Muslim ban and border wall.

Trump adviser Peter Navarro published a book, and in it he unveiled the plan to keep Trump in office. (Video: Monica Rodman, Sarah Hashemi/The Washington Post)

But Trump’s huge popularity in her upstate New York district changed all that. She became one of Trump’s most caustic defenders during his first impeachment. After Trump’s 2020 loss, she embraced the “big lie,” making a stream of false claims about voter fraud, court actions and voting machines, and urging the Supreme Court to reject the results.

When Bridgeland saw his former protegee’s lies about the election, “I was shattered. I was really heartbroken,” he told me. Alumni of Harvard’s IOP petitioned to remove Stefanik from its advisory committee, and Bridgeland signed it. “I had to,” he said, “because Constitution first.” Stefanik called her removal a “badge of honor” and a decision on the school’s part “to cower and cave to the woke left.”

Bridgeland, a career-long policy innovator who still considers himself a Republican, retains a flicker of hope that his former student might return to her early promise, recant the lies, and prove true Ralph Waldo Emerson’s belief that if a “single man plant himself indomitably on his instincts, and there abide, the huge world will come round to him.”

“People become totally ruined by their failure to stand up for the good and the true, but I do think she has the spark still and could awaken to it,” Bridgeland said. “It’s not too late.”

For our country’s sake, I wish I could believe that.

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