There was an exchange Sunday between CNN’s Jake Tapper and Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski that should be required reading/watching for every Republican in elected office.
Here it is (bolding is mine):
Tapper: “It’s a weird time, though, for partisan politics, right? And I dare say it’s a little weirder for Republicans right now. … It must be uncomfortable to be a non-rigidly partisan person during this period.”
Murkowski: “During this part – period, yes.
“But it can be uncomfortable – it can be uncomfortable when you say, I’m not going to align myself neatly with what the party is saying just because the party is saying. You’ve got to be comfortable enough in who you are and who you represent and why you’re here.
“I mean, I’m not here to be the representative of the Republican Party. I’m here to be the representative for Alaskan people. And I take that charge very, very seriously. So, when there is a conflict, when the party is taking an approach or saying things that I think are just absolutely wrong, I think it’s my responsibility, as an Alaskan senator speaking out for Alaskans, to just speak the truth.”
That right there is something that is both a) absolutely fundamental to American democracy and b) seemingly forgotten by large swaths of elected Republicans these days.
The most basic job of a representative is to, well, represent the people of their district or state. Not all of those people voted for them. Not all of those people agree with them. Some vehemently disagree. But the job is to serve the interests of all of your constituents, not just the ones who you think put you in office.
Party should come second to country or, in Murkowski’s thinking, state.
It wasn’t that long ago that such an idea sat at the heart of the Republican Party. When Arizona Sen. John McCain ran for president in 2008, he did so expressly on the slogan “Country First.”
In his acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention that year, McCain told the crowd: “I’ve been an imperfect servant of my country for many years. But I have been her servant first, last and always. And I’ve never lived a day, in good times or bad, that I didn’t thank God for the privilege.”
That sentiment feels like a world away from where the Republican Party currently finds itself. At the moment, the GOP is functionally a cult of personality built around Donald Trump. What Trump says – no matter how far is strays from conservative orthodoxy or what’s good for the average American – goes. Questioning the former President is met with dire political consequences. And so, Republicans usually fall in line – even when that means potentially doing damage to democracy (and their constituents).
There’s no better example of putting party over all other concerns than the ongoing attempts by Trump to undermine the results of the 2020 election. There is no proof for his claims, and yet only a handful of Republicans have spoken out in opposition. Some, like Murkowski, have drawn a Trump-endorsed primary challenge for their actions and words. Others, like Wyoming Rep. Liz Cheney, have been stripped of their leadership position for breaking with their party. (Cheney also faces a primary challenge from a Trump-backed candidate this year.)
It’s worth noting here that Democrats are not immune from this tendency as well. The pressure – and vitriol – aimed at West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin for his refusal to line up behind his party on policy items like the Build Back Better Act and filibuster reform comes from the same idea that party matters more than representation.
Elected officials are, at root, supposed to be leaders within their communities, districts and states. Leadership means putting the good of all above either the good of some or your own personal good. Too often in recent years, Republicans in particular have been willing to walk away not just from past principles, but from what’s good for the people they represent in order to stay on the right side of Trump.
That may make their political lives easier. But leadership isn’t about doing the easy thing. It’s about doing the right thing.