Analysis

The GOP's Denial Chorus

Some Republicans, led by President Trump, haven't come to grips with the causes of November's election debacle.

AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta
Feb. 7, 2019, 8 p.m.

For many Republicans, it took 91 days to accept that voters last Nov. 6 were trying to tell them something about their policies and their president. They were 91 days of denial, excuses, and side-stepping, with President Trump confident he could out-negotiate Democrats in the House and other Republicans comforting themselves that all would be right because the Senate remained in their hands.

Defeat in the showdown over the government shutdown tempered some of the White House optimism. Then Tuesday night made it much more difficult for even the most Pollyannish Republican stalwart to deny the big change that swept across the House after the election. There, sitting over the president’s left shoulder and wielding the gavel, was a Democrat where a Republican had sat for the last eight years through every presidential address to Congress, including the last seven State of the Union addresses. Gone were John Boehner, who presided from 2011 to 2015, and Paul Ryan, who sat there from 2016 to 2018. In their place was Nancy Pelosi, a liberal Democrat and the very picture of confidence throughout Trump’s 5,200-word address.

Michael Gerson, who wrote some of George W. Bush’s best speeches, lamented in The Washington Post before the speech that many Republicans “believe that there is nothing—absolutely nothing—wrong with a political party that lost 40 House seats in a time of relative peace and unprecedented prosperity.”

Judging from the partisan reactions to the speech, there remain Republicans who cling to that and still try to separate the president from the verdict of the voters in November. Those include the president himself, who has led the denials and continues to demand credit for the retention of the Senate while accepting no blame for the loss of the House. It is too soon to say how much the sight of Pelosi was a shot of reality for others in the Denial Chorus, which, since November, has included the party chair, the new leader of the House Republicans, and much of the conservative commentariat.

Here are 10 examples of Republicans who have made excuses or downplayed the losses since November:

Donald Trump

In Trump’s telling, the only thing that happened on Nov. 6 was that Republicans added to their majority in the Senate. That, he insists, was his doing. The loss of the House? Somebody else’s fault. As recently as Tuesday morning, just hours before his State of the Union address, he tweeted, “Too bad we weren’t given more credit for the Senate win by the media.” Of the House losses, he said “the results were better than other sitting Presidents.” He told reporters he was “extraordinarily happy” with the results and called the outcome “a great victory for us.” This even though he had told voters, “I want you to vote. Pretend I’m on the ballot.”

Ronna McDaniel

Even after losing 40 seats in the House, the Republican National Committee chair sees no need for an “autopsy” to figure out why the party is losing the suburbs. “We minimized our losses in the House,” McDaniel said at the RNC Winter Meeting. The only concern she expressed was declining support among women, something she promised to study.

Kevin McCarthy

Now the House minority leader, McCarthy had a close-up view of the wreckage, watching seven seats in his home state of California flip to the Democrats. Some of the incumbents who lost had been pushed hard by McCarthy to vote for Trump policies that were deeply unpopular back home. But he absolves both himself and the president. Instead, he said at a panel discussion last month that the losses could be blamed on redistricting in Pennsylvania, ranked-choice voting in Maine, and the way California allows its ballots to be collected.

Rush Limbaugh

The conservative radio host mocked those Republicans who had feared “a blue wave” and retired before the election. On his show, Limbaugh said the biggest losers were “all of these RINO or old-fashioned establishment Republicans who just couldn’t stand Trump.” He said the GOP would have held the House if they had stood with the president.

Sean Hannity

The Fox News host called the election a “great night” for Trump and Republicans. It was, he tweeted, “a massive win” for the president. He called Democrats winning the House “meaningless.”

Tom Emmer

Most National Republican Congressional Committee heads devour election numbers to better understand the electorate. But Emmer, the new chairman, doesn’t seem to accept the 2018 numbers from the suburbs. “There’s a narrative that people are trying to build out there that somehow there’s been this shift, this political realignment in the suburbs,” Emmer told Ally Mutnick and Kyle Trygstad of National Journal in December. “That’s not true. It isn’t there.”

Sarah Huckabee Sanders

Ever loyal to her boss, the White House press secretary insisted that Republicans who tied themselves to the president fared best in the election. Sanders also dismissed the scope of the House losses, calling it merely “a ripple,” adding, “I certainly don’t think that there’s a blue wave.”

Kellyanne Conway

To Conway, the White House counselor, the loss of the House was not such a big deal simply because the president is “a consummate dealmaker” who can get what he wants from Democrats. “He’s a negotiator; he’s willing to work with Democrats,” she said on CNN.

Paul Ryan

Before leaving Washington, the outgoing speaker refused to link Trump to the loss of the House, which he said “just defies logic.” Ryan blamed Pennsylvania redistricting and retirements.

Mitch McConnell

The Senate majority leader was more cautious in his statements than many other Republicans. At his postelection press conference, McConnell gave credit to Trump for Senate victories and downplayed the impact of the loss of the House. Of Pelosi, he said, “We are not unfamiliar with each other,” and he added that they can work together.

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