Many tributes to former President George Herbert Walker Bush have noted the letter that Bush sent, after losing the 1992 presidential election, to the man who defeated him. In a handwritten note left for Bill Clinton in the Oval Office on January 20, 1993, Bush offered advice on not taking criticism too seriously and concluded, “You will be our President when you read this note. I wish you well. I wish your family well. Your success now is our country’s success. I am rooting hard for you.”
That was a statement rooted in American tradition. It embraced and encouraged the peaceful transition of power from one president to the next, and from one party to another. The letter, Clinton would later reflect, revealed Bush as “an honorable, gracious and decent man who believed in the United States, our Constitution, our institutions and our shared future.”
This notion of a shared future is at the heart of our regard as a people for the orderly transfer of authority from the loser of an election to the winner. If the country is to function as a democratic republic, there must be respect for the electoral process that allows the voters to determine who will exercise power—even when defeated candidates and defeated parties feel that the voters have gotten things wrong. Once the ballots have been counted—and recounted where necessary—the results are certified and the struggle for power is supposed to be finished.
George H.W. Bush understood this. Unfortunately, too many of the Republicans who have succeeded him do not.
In Wisconsin and Michigan, states where Democrats scored major victories on November 6, Republican legislators are racing to thwart the will of the people before newly elected Democratic governors, attorneys general, and secretaries of state take office.
In Wisconsin, the Republican leaders of the state’s Assembly and Senate used this week’s extraordinary session of the legislature to try to ram through dozens of bills that seek to undercut the authority of Governor-elect Tony Evers and Attorney General–elect Josh Kaul. In Michigan, Republican legislators are considering schemes to strip key powers away from the Democrats who in January will replace Republicans as governor, attorney general, and secretary of state.
These GOP initiatives—along with an attempt by North Carolina Republican legislators to implement a new voter-identification measure before they lose their veto-proof supermajority in January—are assaults on the concept of a peaceful transition of power. Instead of respecting the clear desire of the voters for new leadership, Republicans are scrambling to rewrite the rules and disempower the officials that the people of their states elected on November 6.
Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law President Kristen Clarke described the machinations by Republican lawmakers in various states—especially in regard to voting rights and electoral reforms—in stark terms, declaring that “This naked power grab by lawmakers undermines the public’s confidence in the electoral process and breeds distrust in elected officials. These attempts to block reforms and stunt progress are incredibly antidemocratic.”
The Republicans are playing a dangerous game, particularly in Wisconsin, where Scott Walker is conspiring with partisan allies in the legislature to undermine his successor. Remarkably, he and his fellow partisans are attempting to make it harder for Tony Evers to take action on the very health care, economic development, and ethics issues that he was elected to address.
This is a radical assault on democracy: an attempt by the loser of an election to use his last moments in office to undermine the authority of the winner. It is because this sort of behavior is so toxic, and so fundamentally threatening to respect for election results and for the governing decisions that are supposed to extend from them, that thousands of Wisconsinites have been protesting the abuses that Walker and his allies propose to perpetrate.
This is about much more than Scott Walker and Tony Evers in Wisconsin, or Michigan’s Governor-elect Gretchen Whitmer and outgoing Michigan Governor Rick Snyder. These statehouse fights go to the very heart of our understanding of politics in the states and in Washington—where the erratic presidency of Donald Trump and the sycophantic deference of congressional Republicans to his ever-more-unsettling demands has fostered legitimate concern about the abandonment of constitutional principles and the collapse of the rule of law.
As Wisconsin state Senator Caleb Frostman noted in a poignant statement regarding what is happening in his state, recent Republican actions in Wisconsin are a “brazen attempt to cancel statewide election results.”
To illustrate why this is so wrong, Frostman turned to George H. W. Bush’s letter to Bill Clinton. “I’ve seen this letter many times before, but with the recent passing of George H.W. Bush fresh in our collective conscience, its words and its sentiment hold additional significance,” said the legislator. “This note symbolizes many of its author’s most admirable qualities—humility, deference, the capacity for self-reflection, and the full embrace and understanding that the will of the people is what advances our political agenda and thus our collective success. His note also demonstrates one of the most unique and precious traditions of the United States: the peaceful transfer of power, which was a novel concept when our country was founded.”
Lambasting Wisconsin Republicans for this week’s power grab, Frostman, whose brief tenure in the legislature will end in January, warned that, “Unlike the tradition of a peaceful transfer of power, and unlike President Bush’s humble words of encouragement to incoming President Clinton, the [actions of Walker and his legislative allies] are hostile to democracy, display the petulance of children denied their third piece of birthday cake, and reek of supreme arrogance.”