January 17, 2017
It’s a free country, and the forty (and counting) members of Congress who are planning to boycott President-elect Trump’s inauguration are certainly within their rights. So even is Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., who said over the weekend that Trump’s election (or his presidency) is “illegitimate.”
That doesn’t make his comment true or honorable or helpful to the nation’s well-being, but he is free to say it.
Reps. Lewis, Jerry Nadler, D-N.Y., Barbara Lee, D-Calif., Katherine Clark, D-Mass., and the other inaugural boycotters are certainly not alone in finding Trump uniquely awful. They are not alone in believing the soon-to-be president has gone out of his way to offend people. Probably they also recognize that, in the safe districts they all represent, an inaugural boycott might even be a political winner.
But this is also part of a pattern. Lewis and Lee, along with some other Democrat lawmakers at the time, also boycotted to make a point when President George W. Bush was inaugurated in 2001. The Washington Post reported at the time that Lewis “thought it would be hypocritical to attend Bush’s swearing-in because he doesn’t believe Bush is the true elected president.”
Maybe they had a better excuse that time, as there was so much lingering acrimony surrounding the Florida recount. But we’re talking about elected members of Congress who have refused to accept two Republican presidencies in a row. Is there always a good enough excuse whenever a Republican wins? At what point is it fair to ask whether some people are just not committed to democratic or legal processes at all unless the results come out as they hope?
Trump, after all, was rightly criticized for refusing to commit in advance to accepting the election’s outcome. America’s republican system of government cannot function unless all parties are willing accept the outcome the system produces. That is especially true when they do not like the outcome.
A Nexis search for terms related to the boycott of presidential inaugurations mostly returns results from countries where democratic systems are failing. It does not return any evidence that a single Republican member of Congress boycotted either of President Obama’s inaugurations in order to make a political statement about his legitimacy. As pernicious and pervasive as the birther lies about Obama might have been, it was quite rare to find a Republican lawmaker willing to express more than ambiguity about them at worst. And no one ever questioned whether bills became laws when Obama signed them, or lawyers judges when he appointed them, or whether he had a right to take up residence in the White House.
Eight years along and so with much bad blood under the bridge, it is perhaps difficult even to remember the sort of reverential treatment that GOP lawmakers gave Obama in the days and weeks leading up to his first inauguration. People forget that McConnell’s talk about making Obama a “one-term president” didn’t come until nearly two years later (October 2010, to be precise). Republicans were never going to get on board with Obama’s legislative agenda, but simple self-preservation dictated that they at least delay the rancor that would follow when the Obamacare debate began.
In early January 2009, Republicans were still all smiles about Obama, perhaps concealing the anxiety about the thumping that voters had just given them. Their rhetoric in those days was full of wishful thinking about how the parties in Washington could work together. “We’re glad the president-elect believes that tax cuts are stimulative and will in fact get our economy moving,” said House Minority Leader John Boehner, R-Ohio. “I look forward to working with the new president and his team.”
Boehner, House Minority Whip Eric Cantor, R-Va., and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., may not have believed a word of what they were saying in their press conference on January 5, 2009, but at least the drubbing they had received in the 2008 election had imposed some humility upon them from the outside. McConnell seemed to beg for Obama to include some Republican ideas in his upcoming stimulus package, so that it would pass later that month with broad bipartisan support. A sanguine hope all around, probably, but Obama’s popularity was so extraordinary then that Republicans sensed great risk in criticizing him too soon, too openly or too stridently.
Trump is unlike Obama in many ways. His popularity ratings were terrible even as he won the presidency, and they remain so as he prepares to take the oath of office. There is little political risk in Democrat members of Congress criticizing him, boycotting their new president’s inauguration, or even calling him illegitimate. The election loss of 2016 has evidently not imposed humility on anyone.