Only One Option Left
Meijer and Cheney have lit up the only path to saving democracy. It is not reforming the GOP from within.
August’s Republican primaries raise concrete strategic questions for pro-democracy leaders in both parties:
How should Democrats try to win at all costs? Can such an approach include “the Bad Democratic Bet” of boosting election-denying Republicans to weaken the GOP nominee?
For pro-democracy Republicans, what is the realistic path forward in a political reality where Liz Cheney can’t top 30% for re-election?
The intersection of these questions is of particular interest to those focused on winning over ex-Republicans and right-of-center swing voters. The natural answers (of course the GOP needs saving! of course the DCCC shouldn’t elevate election-deniers!) cannot be dismissed, and the existing cases are worthy of closer study.
Surely there has to be a better way than 80% of impeachment-voting Republicans going down to defeat while Democrat’s expected House margin improves from undermining one of them.
Case Study & Framework
A thorny case study to test these strategic challenges is GOP Representative Peter Meijer, one of the rare pro-democracy Republicans to take office in the Trump era.
A useful framework to analyze the options facing the Cheneys and Meijers of the GOP was delineated in a June 2021 debate at the Niskanen Center titled A Time for Choosing: The Center-Right’s Three Options for Saving American Democracy. Those three options:
Stay in the Republican Party and fight its anti-democratic forces from within;
Form an independent, center-right third party; or
Join and strengthen a moderate-to-conservative faction within the Democratic Party
Meijer, who voted for impeachment, represents Michigan’s 3rd Congressional District. After losing his primary to an election-denier supported by the Democratic House campaign arm, Meijer will be replaced in January by either that election-denier or by a Democrat. Pundits were as sympathetic to Meijer as they were critical of Democrats for helping boost his Trump-backed opponent.
In his brief time on the national stage, Meijer won that media narrative - but lost everything else.
In the process, he provided a case study for understanding the three options facing pro-democracy Republicans.
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Option #1 (Stay & Fight): Meijer Backfire in the Last Hope for a Hopeless Party
Meijer’s narrative (Option #1) is built upon a myth: the idea that defeating Trumpism requires honorable leaders who act dishonorably most of the time, but reactivate their principled superpowers when democracy needs saving.
Meijer proves the unsustainability of this path.
Unlike most pro-democracy Republicans, Meijer was first elected in the Trump era. This is important when considering the viability of this within-the-GOP path, as its dwindling ranks were nearly all first elected before Trump.
Most pro-democracy Republicans have a decade or more in public service — and many even seem to inherit their principles from parents who served with Richard Nixon or Gerald Ford (Governor Larry Hogan’s father was the only Republican congressman to vote for all articles of impeachment against Nixon, Governor Charlie Baker’s father served in the Nixon Administration, Senator Mitt Romney’s father was in Nixon’s cabinet, etc.). There are not enough sons and daughters of Dick Cheney’s old co-workers to retake the GOP. And when new ones do run — like Jeb Bush’s son George P. did this year — they run as Trumpists. Or they lose. (Or, in George P.’s case, both.)
Michigan’s third congressional district is a rare bastion of GOP courage. Two years ago, it was represented by a conservative named Justin Amash, the first Republican to call for Trump’s first impeachment, in May 2019. Months later, Amash was challenged by a first-time candidate who cited the incumbent’s position on Trump as the main difference between them.
That candidate was Peter Meijer.
It is worth re-reading Meijer’s 2019 campaign announcement article:
“… the grandson of late retail magnate Fred Meijer, announced Wednesday that’s he joining a growing field of Republican candidates seeking to unseat U.S. Rep. Justin Amash in the August 2020 primary for Michigan’s 3rd Congressional District.
‘I think that Rep. Amash is strongly committed to his principles, but I believe that West Michigan needs a new voice in Congress,’ said Meijer, a 31-year-old Grand Rapids Township resident.”
Ah yes, the classic justification for defeating an incumbent: he is “strongly committed to his principles, but …”
But the leopards won’t eat MY face!
Meijer respected Amash’s principles. But he needed to replace him because:
“In an interview with MLive, Meijer said his approach as a congressman would differ from Amash in that he would work with President Donald Trump.”
The difference, in Meijer’s own words, is that Amash was principled, but that Meijer would work with Trump.
Meijer went on to cite Trump as his proof point for success as a first-time candidate:
“He pointed, for instance, to Trump, and said that, ‘Our president has demonstrated that to be a change agent, sometimes it helps to come from outside the system.’”
Meijer then not only attacked Amash for being pro-impeachment, he questioned Amash’s motivation as unpatriotic:
“When asked about Amash’s call for impeachment proceedings against Trump, Meijer said: ‘Looking at the issue of impeachment today, the people who are advancing it aren’t doing it because they think it’s right for the country.’”
Recall that this is the same Peter Meijer you’ve read many laudatory articles about as a savior of democracy. In 2020, Amash dropped out, and after winning the GOP primary Meijer stumped with Mike Pence at a MAGA rally in a swing state (calling the Trump Administration “strong, stable, and effective”) and went to Congress.
Meijer toed the party line until he couldn’t anymore. After the general election, he spoke up for democracy and made the commendable decision to impeach. But subsequently, he chose a very different path than Cheney. He mostly did not rock the boat.
Meijer has again continued to toe the party line post-primary. After Republican primary voters in his district sent him packing, Meijer appeared at a GOP unity event where he endorsed the election-denier in the battle to replace him.
That path is Option #1.
Option #2: Third Party Mirage
After Meijer’s entry into the 2020 race for Michigan’s 3rd Congressional District, Amash went on to demonstrate the futility of Option #2 with a brief third party foray - something Andrew Yang’s “Forward Party” is in the process of proving once again (for a more thorough and political science-based debunking of the third party myth, check out this thread from professor Brendan Nyhan).
Amash left the GOP, explored a run for the presidency, and ultimately ended his career in elected office.
But Amash did not join the Democratic Party — something no Republican federal elected official has done in the 7 years since Trump came down the escalator (and something he also has in common with subsequent impeachment-voters).
With the dust now settled, 8 of the 10 House Republicans who courageously voted to impeach Trump after January 6th have either retired or been knocked out by Trumpists in primaries.
Part of why a third party is so appealing lies in how inhospitable today’s Republican primary electorate is to the type of leaders who can be successful candidates (and the staff, advisors, and donors needed to fuel them).
Josh Barro recently pointed out that the Trumpified GOP has a severe candidate quality problem. Pluralities (and, in Meijer and Cheney’s cases, majorities) of Republican primary voters are choosing to elevate a crop of distinctly bad and unpopular candidates in key races across the country.
There is a line of thinking that this is beneficial: if the GOP will only be reformed in defeat, and low candidate quality can hasten that defeat, it should be pursued.
As Barro hammered home in another spectacular piece, this is extremely inconvenient to the apparently principled Republicans on “Team Normal”, who seek Democratic acquiescence in their attempts to retake power:
“That your party is led by an inept, impulsive, criminally inclined man, who is viewed negatively by most voters, who cares very little about whether your party wins elections or achieves policy goals, and who keeps causing the party to nominate his unappealing weirdo personal friends in otherwise-winnable Senate races, is your problem — one largely of your own making. No self-respecting set of political opponents would respond to this in any other way than by putting the screws to you as hard as is possible.”
Cheney, Meijer, and all pro-democracy conservatives deserve credit for doing the right thing when the stakes were high. But their decision to stay and fight Trumpism from within the GOP has landed them at a dead end.
The fight to save democracy from inside the Republican Party is largely over for now.
Option #3: The only path forward
Where these individual leaders go is incredibly important to the future of democracy. The opportunity cost of a third-party is providing these leaders the false sense that there is a higher-return option than switching parties (even if briefly). But there is not. The best path forward is by joining with a moderate faction of Democrats.
As we wrote back in 2021, for pro-democracy candidates:
the math looks obvious: If he runs as a Republican, he would have to win more than 50 percent of Trump-worshipping primary voters. If he runs as a conservative Democrat, he would have to flip about 10 percent of Republican voters in the general election.
Neither task is easy. But one is significantly harder than the other.
And winning a plurality as a third-party candidate is even harder.
Option #3 is now the only path forward for saving American democracy. The value of every marginal House seat is immensely high. With everything at stake right now, Democrats have every incentive to keep the speaker’s gavel out of Kevin McCarthy’s hands — and to keep his majority as slim as possible.
In that March 2021 piece in The Bulwark, we called on Democrats to recruit anti-Trump conservatives such as Meijer and Anthony Gonzalez to join a moderate faction within the Democratic Party. We did so again in September and then in NBC News THINK in November. This needs to get louder.
The DCCC’s intervention in Meijer’s GOP primary is different form of that win-at-all-costs mentality. Meijer’s primary defeat increased the odds of Democrats winning Michigan’s 3rd district. That intervention caused everyone from pro-democracy activists to self-loathing liberals to apply the Democratic Party’s patented win-but-not-at-all-costs framing to the case of MI-03.
That makes sense. Elevating an election denier is gross and represents what principled people hate about politics.
Is it bad karma? Sure seems like it, although the karma surrounding the Amash-Meijer seat has to be complicated at best.
Did it backfire? We don’t know yet.
But there is a better way, as ugly as it may look. As we wrote in 2021:
… both a centrist third party and a pro-democracy GOP are unicorns: It’s easy to picture what they look like, but they’re the stuff of imagination.
The viable path to saving our democracy is more like a platypus: An animal which sounds ridiculous when you describe it—a tiny seal with a duck beak, webbed feet, and a bushy tail?—but is, in fact, quite real.
The path forward isn’t a unicorn versus alicorn debate—primary the Trumpists or start a “common sense” party—but a weird, unsettling platypus-like option: Having Democrats start to woo “future former Republicans.”
Option 1 was mostly-dead in 2021, and is more dead now.
Option 2 has always been quixotic at best (and likely worse than doing nothing) without significant electoral reform.
You can call the DCCC a lot of things this month. But you cannot call them what former Trump allies fear most: losers.
That’s reserved for Meijer, who saved face by summoning Amash-like principles 18 months after defeating them… and then encountered the “but” this month, when leopards ate his face.
In closing, time for more of Option 3. Yes, Democrats should try to win at all costs. The alternative to Democrats boosting election deniers is not simply letting occasionally-honorable Republicans win. It is allowing principled leaders to act honorably most of the time, and win a clear majority all of the time. It may be ugly, but the best way to do that now is to more aggressively recruit pro-democracy conservatives into a big-tent Democratic Party faction.
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