As president, Joe Biden has set for himself two tasks that are, if not totally contradictory, at the very least in tension with each other: He’s been eager to work across the aisle to restore bipartisan comity, while also promising to defend American democracy from the existential threat of Trumpian authoritarianism. In the first 18 months of his presidency, he’s scored some successes on the bipartisan front (getting GOP support for an infrastructure bill and a few other measures, such as Postal Service reform and the establishment of Juneteenth as a national holiday). But these measures amount to—as even the most enthusiastic Biden fan would admit—far less than the New Deal– or Great Society–size presidency that many had hoped for. More to the point, there’s been little success in shoring up American democracy. The push for a new voting rights act has stalled, and Trumpist candidates openly promising to sabotage the next presidential election continue to win Republican primaries.
Biden’s dual program of bipartisanship and democratic restoration is supported by the Democratic Party establishment. It was House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, in remarks made in early May at the Aspen Ideas Climate Conference in Miami, who articulated this agenda with great clarity, saying action on the environment needed bipartisan cooperation and a “strong Republican Party.” Pelosi explained: “So rather than saying ‘Well, we have to defeat them,’ no, let’s just try to persuade them. I want the Republican Party to take back the party, take it back to where you were when you cared about a woman’s right to choose, you cared about the environment.” She added, “Here I am, Nancy Pelosi, saying this country needs a strong Republican Party. Not a cult.”
It’s clear that by “a strong Republican Party,” what Pelosi means is a party that is not beholden to the radical right or figures like Donald Trump. More cynically, she’s perhaps boasting about the fact that the Democrats have disciplined the left wing of their party in order to govern from the center and would like to see the Republicans do the same.
The project of creating “a strong Republican Party” is a strange one. The history over many decades—not just during the Trump years, but going back to Barry Goldwater’s winning of the nomination in 1964—is of moderate Republicans being easily vanquished by the far right. After all, it’s hardly the case that the GOP in recent decades, even before Trump became the party’s standard-bearer in 2016, was strong on environmentalism or reproductive freedom.
But the plain fact that the Republicans aren’t willing to moderate hasn’t stopped the Democratic establishment from constantly trying to prop up the small number of Republicans who, if you are willing to make allowances for some egregious actions, might be mistaken for moderates. Biden, Pelosi, and other Democratic leaders are thus engaged in an impossible juggling act: They are simultaneously trying to govern as Democrats and pushing to reform their rival party (rather than, as is normal in a democracy, to defeat it).
The hearings into the January 6, 2021, attempted insurrection vividly illustrate the confusion of this conflicted agenda. On the one hand, under the able stewardship of Mississippi Representative Bennie Thompson, the hearings did a superb job of laying out the essential case: that Trump and his cronies egged on a mob to attack the Capitol, with the intent of overturning the results of the election.
In making this case, the committee was careful to do everything possible to get Republican buy-in, even though Republican congressional bigwigs like Kevin McCarthy, the House minority leader, repeatedly questioned the legitimacy of the panel. The committee included two Republicans: Wyoming Representative Liz Cheney (who is vice chair) and Illinois Representative Adam Kinzinger. Cheney in particular was given pride of place, with Johnson describing her as “a patriot, a public servant of profound courage, of devotion to her oath and the Constitution.”
The hearings were largely aimed at sorting out good Republicans from bad, with much praise being lavished on former attorney general William Barr and former vice president Mike Pence. One of Pence’s assistants, attorney Greg Jacob, talked in the hearings about how on January 6 he turned to the story of Daniel in the Hebrew Bible. The implication here is that Pence was like Daniel, a hero who stayed true even in the lions’ den.
But, on the other hand, this valorization of Barr and Pence is absurd. To be sure, there is value in having Barr state that Trump’s claims of election fraud are “bullshit.” And Pence has to be honored for resisting Trump’s threats and certifying the election results (although it’s worth noting that in so doing, he merely followed the example of every previous American vice president).
Yet both Barr and Pence were thoroughly complicit in the Trump presidency before January 6. Barr has said that he would vote for Trump if he were the party’s nominee in 2024. Pence has been extremely gingerly in his criticism of Trump, gesturing toward a need for the GOP and the country to move on. This is a position that serves Pence’s presidential ambitions but is not, to put it mildly, a profile in courage.
The big story of American politics is the increasing authoritarianism of the GOP. The January 6 hearings do nothing to counteract this trend. In her capacity as vice chair, Cheney has reportedly worked to shield top Republicans like Ginni Thomas, the wife of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, from investigation. It’s no surprise that Cheney is eager for a whitewash that targets only Trump and a few of his cronies while protecting the GOP. Less obvious is why Democrats are so eager to protect the good name of a party holding a knife to the neck of democracy.