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What happened to Elise Stefanik?

Has Rep. Elise Stefanik lost her way? Perhaps not. It is more likely that Ms. Stefanik actually has found her way, summed up in two sets of just three words: “Party Before Country” and “Devoted to Trump.”

This was not always the case. The transformation of Elise Stefanik, now 38, is among the most dramatic and significant in American politics.

There was a time in 2016, for example, when Elise Stefanik — who currently holds the No. 3 leadership post in the House Republican Conference — seemed to consider aspiring presidential candidate Donald Trump’s comments on the “Access Hollywood” tape so sickening she would barely mention his name. Trump’s insults to women, promises to build a wall on the U.S.- Mexico border, and temporarily halt Muslims entering the country, were antithetical to Stefanik’s “big-tent” Republican image, which boosted her to victory in 2014 over Democratic contender Aaron Woolf.

Subsequently reinvented in Trump’s image — whose rhetoric and policies she blasted during the 2016 presidential campaign as “Not who we are as a country” — Elise Stefanik has morphed from the conservative mainstream into an unlikely star of the MAGA universe and a die-hard Trump loyalist. Today, former President Trump proudly refers to her as “one of my killers,” thanks to her key role as his chief defender on the House Intelligence Committee during his first impeachment trial. Ms. Stefanik’s allegiance to Mr. Trump is so complete that she is being touted as a potential vice-presidential running mate should Trump enter the race in 2024.

In keeping with her newfound “ultra-MAGA and proud of it” reputation in the Republican Conference, Stefanik has defended the Jan. 6, 2021 riot at the U.S. Capitol, attempted to undermine confidence in the select committee investigating the violent assault on the Capitol — calling it “illegitimate” and a “sham” — voted to invalidate the 2020 presidential election of Joe Biden, parroted Trump’s false claims about election fraud — “The Big Lie” — echoed white supremacist conspiracies and attacked law enforcement and the FBI for its seizure of classified documents at Trump’s Mar-a-Lago residence, without ever questioning why the former president chose to take them in the first place. She voted against the transformative Inflation Reduction Act that would fight climate change, reduce drug prescription costs for seniors, and require large corporations to finally pay their fair share of taxes.

As for her so-called support for the nation’s veterans, Stefanik recently tweeted, “I will always support our nation’s veterans,” yet voted along party lines to oppose the Health Care for Burn Pit Veterans Act, saying it may increase wait times for veterans’ care. Stefanik also opposed President Biden’s Infrastructure Bill, which delivers high speed internet to rural homes, businesses and communities, and includes new funding for bridge repair, replacement and rehabilitation, and the creation of “millions of jobs.” Stefanik also recently voted against three bills related to women’s reproductive rights: Women’s Health Protection Act; Ensuring Access to Abortion Act; and Right to Contraception Act. One could go on. But the picture is clear. Elise Stefanik, in a stunning metamorphosis, has put her political ambitions and self-interest ahead of the needs of our communities.

Peter Wehner, in a guest essay in the New York Times (July 26, 2022), had this to say about Elise Stefanik’s change of character: “Her political conversion is a source of sadness and anger for several people I spoke to who were colleagues of hers, and who were, unlike me, once close to her. To them, Ms. Stefanik’s story is of a person who betrayed her principles and her country in a manic quest for power. Ms. Stefanik’s story is important in part because it mirrors that of so many other Republicans. They, like Ms. Stefanik, are opportunists, living completely in the moment, shifting their personas to advance their immediate political self-interests. A commitment to ethical conduct, a devotion to the common good and fidelity to truth appear to have no intrinsic worth to them. These qualities are mere instrumentalities, used when helpful but discarded when inconvenient. Those who know Ms. Stefanik well consider her smart and talented but hollow at the core. She is an individual of ‘ambition unmoored to principle,’ as Barbara Comstock, a Virginia Republican who served in Congress with Ms. Stefanik, told me. Margaret Hoover, the host of ‘Firing Line,’ who worked in the Bush administration with Ms. Stefanik, described her as a person of “sheer ambition and not principled at all.”

Stefanik, in her self defense, has argued from time to time that she is simply representing the views of a majority of her constituents. But even if one holds to the belief that it is Stefanik’s job as an elected representative to echo the views of her constituents rather than to lead with her “judgement and conscience” — to borrow a phrase from political theorist Edmund Burke — there comes a point when responding to the will of the voters becomes morally unjustifiable, especially if it requires one to support a president who urges people to overturn the rule of law at the heart of our democracy because he didn’t like the way the 2020 presidential election turned out.

Elected officials who put country before party appear to be increasingly in short supply these days, most notably in the ranks of an authoritarian-leaning Republican Party which — in tandem with Donald Trump — in the view of many, poses the gravest threat to American Democracy and the soul of the nation we have experienced in recent memory. It is time for a change, more so now than ever before.

— — —

Joe Mercurio lives in Saranac Lake.

Sources

“What in the World Happened to Elise Stefanik,” Peter Wehner, NY Times, July 26, 2022

“Stefanik won’t say Donald Trump’s name, but pledges GOP loyalty,” Dan Freedman, Albany Times Union, May 5, 2016

‘Not who we are as a country’: Elise Stefanik once harshly blasted Trump’s rhetoric and policies, Andrew Kaczynski and Em Steck, CNN Politics, May 7, 2021

“Elise Stefanik, Reinvented in Trump’s Image, Embodies a Changed G.O.P.,” Ann Karni, NY Times, March 27, 2022

“I will always support our nation’s veterans”, Elise Stefanik @EliseStefanik, Twitter, March 10, 2022

Votes by Elise Stefanik in the 117th Congress, PROPUBLICA

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