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The hollowness at the core of Adam Kinzinger's anti-Trumpism
It's not enough to just say you support free elections — especially when you're in a position to do something about it.
Let’s open the third week of Public Notice with a look at a few moments from the Sunday news shows that illuminate something bigger in American politics.
I’ll start with Rep. Adam Kinzinger (R-IL), who has been lauded for his anti-Trump rhetoric. But there’s a certain hollowness at the core of the “never Trump” Republicanism that he and Rep. Liz Cheney (R-WY) have done so much to popularize. It was on display Sunday morning during Kinzinger’s interview with CNN State of the Union host Jake Tapper.
Kinzinger and Cheney are the only two Republicans on the January 6 commission. They’ve crossed Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) by being clear and unequivocal in denouncing Trump’s lies about the 2020 election and his role in instigating the January 6 insurrection.
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At the same time, they haven’t put their money where their mouths are when it comes to passing legislation to protect voting rights. Both joined every other House Republican this year in voting against the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, a bill which would fully restore the Voting Rights Act and make it harder for states to enact voter suppression laws. They also both voted against the For the People Act, which, among other things, would make it easier for all Americans to register to vote.
Many view passing legislation of this sort as the single most important thing that defenders of free and fair elections can do to protect US democracy against the Republican Party’s increasingly brazen authoritarian turn. (I talked to an expert who holds that view for the post that launched this newsletter.) Kinzinger disagrees. And on Sunday morning, Tapper challenged him to explain why.
“Is there a bipartisan effort that you and other Republicans could get behind that could actually protect the rights of voters and get through the House and Senate for President Biden to sign?” Tapper asked.
Kinzinger responded by serving up a word salad.
First he expressed “hope” that some sort of voting rights legislation can pass, then quickly pivoted to trying to defend his opposition to the bills on offer. But his reasoning was flawed.
Kinzinger cited the Supreme Court’s 2013 decision in Shelby County v. Holder to justify his opposition. But that decision — which, as Vox’s Ian Millhiser puts it, “eliminated the Voting Rights Act’s requirement that states with a history of racist election practices ‘preclear’ any new voting rules” with the federal government — is one of the fundamental reasons legislation like the John Lewis bill is so urgently needed. The case opened the door for states to pass voter restriction laws like ones recently passed in Georgia and Texas, so it’s actually a reason new federal legislation is so desperately needed, not one that justifies doing nothing.
If Kinzinger does actually have policy reasons for opposing the two votings rights bills, he didn’t share them with Tapper. Instead, he concluded his answer by admonishing Democrats to “quit playing politics” and said, “I can put a bill out there, you know, the God and Puppies Act and see people vote against that and say, ‘they are against God and puppies.’”
Marc Elias, a renowned Democratic voting rights lawyer, responded to Kinzinger’s comments by contextualizing them within the Republican Party’s broader turn against voting rights legislation over the past decade.
“In 2006, the VRA [Voting Rights Act] passed the Senate 98-0,” Elias noted on Twitter. “In 2021, a so-called ‘moderate’ Republican opposes it. Even Trump's opponents in the GOP oppose minority voting rights.”
To be clear, Kinzinger and Cheney deserve credit for risking their own political futures by calling out their party’s turn against free and fair elections. But those words ring somewhat empty when both vote in opposition to bills that would make it much more difficult for Trump or a future Trump to undermine our democracy.
Still, Kinzinger and Cheney are positively heroic in comparison to Republicans who are guzzling the Trump Kool Aid. And that brings us to the second clip I want to highlight.
Ron Johnson says the quiet part very loudly
While Kinzinger and Cheney at least talk the talk about wanting to serve constructively, Sen. Ron Johnson’s (R-WI) appearance on Fox News’s Sunday Morning Futures underscored how a faction of the Republican Party sees no higher service than kneecapping Democrats.
Asked by host Maria Bartiromo how he hopes negotiations on the infrastructure and social safety net legislation pans out, Johnson indicated he’s praying for gridlock.
“I hope for Democrat gridlock,” Johnson said. “Oftentimes in Washington, DC, gridlock is the better alternative, but when it’s Democrat gridlock? Pray for it. I hope that’s exactly what happens.”
Johnson’s remark was broadcast around the same time as a widely panned opening monologue from Chuck Todd on Meet the Press that concluded with him suggesting that Biden is falling short by not delivering on his promise of “a basic return to normal.”
“With the midterms elections just over a year away, unless voters see evidence of this new normal, they may decide to return power back to the Republicans,” Todd said.
Of course, Republicans like Johnson who have politicized public health and radicalized people with lies about elections have made it their mission in public life to prevent normalcy. But Todd’s framing normalizes their nihilism and blames Biden for not overcoming it.
Tapper didn’t push back on Kinzinger’s weak reasoning for not supporting voting rights bills, but he at least challenged him to explain why he’s not practicing what he preaches. In doing so he shed light on how the gridlock agenda is something Republicans largely share in common, despite their rhetorical differences.
Yes, the reason voting rights, climate, and social safety net legislation is held up in Congress is in part because of Democratic divisions — there aren’t 50 votes in the Senate to reform the filibuster. But Todd shouldn’t let Republicans off the hook for the fact their party currently stands for little more than obstruction in service of returning Trump to power.