In the Long Game, Even Insurrection May Not Disqualify Presidential Hopes

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A black mask partially covered Mitt Romney’s face while his colleague spoke. But it was clear to anyone who has spent a half a minute with the Utah senator to discern his low opinion of his fellow Republican Josh Hawley’s shenanigans in the early hours of yesterday.

As Hawley, a first-term Senator from Missouri with White House ambitions, was doing his schtick to deny President-elect Joe Biden his due early Thursday morning, it was obvious that Romney marshaled every ounce of his famous discipline to hold his tongue. He had already faced heckling from Trump supporters for condemning Hawley’s effort. Though the mask obscured his clenched jaw, it signaled for almost everyone else in the Senate caucus the fraught road that Hawley and his co-conspirators will have to navigate going forward. At least internally.

Hawley and a half-dozen Senate comrades, including Sen. Ted Cruz, tried to deny Biden the White House on Wednesday afternoon and then in the early-morning hours of Thursday, even after an insurrection that became the first time since 1814 that the Capitol’s garrison failed. A riot on Capitol Hill didn’t derail the certification of Biden, but it did bring havoc, death and disgrace. Even in the wake of that horror, Hawley and Co. — a reduced troop, to be sure, from their initial pack of a dozen or so — moved forward with their plans.

Now they’re about to find what it’s like to be part of the You-Can’t-Sit-With-Us Caucus. It’s not just Romney who disapproves. A day after he sparked the revolt, Hawley’s political mentor disowned him. His publisher canceled his book deal. Donors are dropping him.

The odd irony? It might actually help his and his allies’ prospects.

The Senate — and the broader Republican Party, for that matter — will tolerate eccentricities, for sure. How else do you explain Sen. Rand Paul’s continued power despite time and time again mucking up his party’s best-laid plans? Or Cruz’s durability? He shut down the government in 2013 in an ill-fated mission to destroy Obamacare, and in the process probably cost Republican Ken Cuccinelli his bid for Virginia Governor as voters in the commonwealth linked Cruz’s expensive stunt with Republicans more broadly. Two years later, Cruz ran for President, raised almost $100 million, emerged as the last remaining opponent to Donald Trump and won roughly a quarter of all votes cast in the Republican primaries and caucuses.

The Senate has a high and bipartisan pain threshold for losers. Unsuccessful presidential candidates often find refuge back in the marble buildings to the east of Capitol Street. Senators Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders, Cory Booker, Amy Klobuchar, Michael Bennet and Kirsten Gillibrand all chased the 2020 Democratic nomination and still have mahogany desks at the Capitol. Four years earlier, Senators Cruz, Paul, Marco Rubio and Lindsey Graham similarly chased the presidency but slinked back to the Senate in defeat. The ranks of failed efforts in that Upper Chamber’s recent history range from Lamar Alexander and John McCain to Joe Lieberman and John Kerry. The Senate is a safe and familiar landing zone for presidential losers — in no small part because almost everyone in the room looks in a mirror and sees a future President.

But those previous efforts to challenge the status quo didn’t cost lives. It doesn’t take too much effort to argue that Hawley, et al., did, in their much-publicized plan to challenge the election certification in Congress on Jan. 6, prompting Trump supporters to gather in Washington to back the effort. The Kansas City Star in Hawley’s home state declared Hawley had “blood on his hands” in a stunning editorial.

For their stunt, these lawmakers may have to pay, at least in the short term. There is little reward for those who harbored sympathies for the crowd that used a flagpole flying a Trump 2020 banner to break through windows of the U.S. Capitol. At the very least, they will be PNGs — personas non grata — in the Senate. No one will be rushing to have them join as co-sponsors of legislation or sign on for a congressional delegation when travel is eased. Judging from history, they’re likely to be the last to arrive and the first to leave when Republicans get together for closed-door sessions. No one really wants to hear their thoughts, least of all Republican Leader Mitch McConnell, whose rage was barely concealed during proceedings on Wednesday after their stunt sparked bloodshed under his roof.

Looking downstream, though, it’s not clear how long their sin will sting. Hawley and his partner Cruz are both laying the groundwork for 2024 runs. Their dangerous antics this week will dog them, for sure. But if the Trump era has taught us nothing, it is this: our attention spans are ridiculously short and America is more than willing to look the other way to grease the skids of a second chance. It’s not a new invention; politics has a long appetite for the story of an underdog. One need only look at how Bill Clinton in 1992 turned a second-place finish in New Hampshire’s primary amid a swirling scandal to call himself the Comeback Kid.

Then there’s a sobering finding in a new YouGov poll: a majority of Republicans blame Biden for the riot, 45% actually support storming the Capitol and 30% call those who staged an insurrection “patriots.”

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