While the half dozen Republican Senators who supported the creation of an independent commission to investigate the Jan. 6 assault on the U. S. Capitol did so to obtain a more complete understanding of the incident, their colleagues’ opposition was a straightforward political calculation.
The strategy, developed by Leader Mitch McConnell, called for blocking the commission by arguing it was an expensive duplication of effort. The Department of Justice and two Senate committees are in the midst of ongoing inquiries into the siege of the Capitol and dozens of well-publicized arrests have already been made.
By thwarting the commission, McConnell took House Speaker Nancy Pelosi up on her threat to appoint a select committee armed with subpoena power to conduct its own investigation, a step he believes plays into his hands by tainting the panel with a partisan mission.
Republicans will portray the select committee not as a seeker of truth, but as a pursuer of political advantage whose eventual findings will lack credibility and will be neither trustworthy nor acceptable. They will work overtime to raise doubts about the fairness and objectivity of the committee and depict it as a Democratic National Committee campaign tactic.
Despite the broad support for the independent commission proposal, McConnell has gambled it can be neutralized in the 2022 midterm Congressional elections and overpowered by Republican driven issues like immigration and border security, increased taxes and spending, and Democratic support for defunding the police, issues which cut far more deeply with voters than a politically motivated Congressional committee investigation.
Republicans will establish a campaign narrative that the Democratic strategy is based on running against four years of Trump, utilizing the select committee’s inquiry to claim the ex-president was responsible for the assault on the Capitol, while Republicans will campaign against two years of Biden.
With Republicans within striking distance of regaining the House majority as well as breaking the 50-50 draw in the Senate, party leaders believe opposition to an outside commission will fail as a deciding factor in the midterms.
Democrats are acutely aware that history does not favor them and the disastrous 2020 election in which they very nearly lost control of the House is still fresh in their minds.
While Trump still maintains a tight grip on the party, his departure from office diminishes his value as a target of opportunity for Democrats, who’ve turned to the lunatic fringe conspiracy theories of first term Congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Greene as evidence the Republican Party is controlled by its most radical elements and can’t be entrusted with Congressional majorities.
By engineering the defeat of the independent commission inquiry, McConnell rejected the advice of leading scholars and public figures that only a bipartisan panel modeled after the 9/11 commission is capable of unearthing the truth of what transpired, who was accountable, why law enforcement was quickly overpowered and develop recommendations for structural policy and procedural changes to avert a recurrence.
Their argument was a powerful one, and in a less polarized and divisive political environment would have carried the day, arguably with Republican support.
At a time when overheated, apocalyptic rhetoric accompanies and dominates virtually every issue debate and eliminates the possibility of across the aisle agreement, the opportunity for an unbiased examination of the worst assault on American democracy in modern history vanished.
Democrats and Republicans alike compared Jan. 6 with Sept. 11 of 20 years ago, while others insisted nothing out of the ordinary occurred despite disturbingly graphic video evidence to the contrary. Bridging that divide is out of reach.
In another 18 months, McConnell’s high stakes gamble on his party’s future will either pay off or turn out to be a monumental political blunder.
If he triumphs, he’ll share the winner’s circle with Trump, who will elbow his way front and center, bask in the accolades, and remind McConnell that 2024 is not far off.
Golden is a senior contributing analyst with the William J. Hughes Center for Public Policy at Stockton University in New Jersey. You can reach him at cgolden1937@gmail.