Dennis Downey

Dennis Downey

Legend has it that Nero fiddled as Rome burned. Today, it appears that Republican politicians in our fair commonwealth are posturing foolishly as the pandemic and its economic fallout wreak havoc on their constituencies.

Is it conceit or deceit that compels these elected officials to maintain a fiction of rampant fraud and corruption in the November election? Are they gullible or calculating in traveling this path while bearing the mantle of an imagined righteous cause? To whom are they beholden? Certainly not we the people, nor the cause of good governance and a more perfect union.

I am particularly disheartened by reports that U.S. Rep. Lloyd Smucker and other Pennsylvania representatives in Congress have signed on to the partisan campaign to challenge Pennsylvania’s electoral votes pledged to President-elect Joe Biden when they are placed before Congress today. It is noteworthy that Pennsylvania Republican Sen. Pat Toomey does not support this ploy.

I once voted for Smucker and was grateful for his measured and balanced approach to governance. He appeared to me to be a “problem solver” willing to listen to and help constituents. Was I wrong or has something changed? The actions of local Republican officials in positions of influence within the commonwealth are no better.

I am writing these words as news of former Pennsylvania Gov. Dick Thornburgh’s death on Dec. 31 has reached the nation and commonwealth. Thornburgh was a politically moderate and socially responsible Republican who more often than not set the proverbial “good example.”

As a federal prosecutor, governor, and then U.S. attorney general, Thornburgh demonstrated the qualities of principled leadership that saw the commonwealth and the nation through numerous crises, not the least of which was the 1979 Three Mile Island nuclear accident.

In office only two months, Thornburgh exhibited a calm professionalism that insisted on a fact-driven assessment of the crisis, and he welcomed federal-state cooperation to remedy the situation.

As attorney general in the Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush administrations, Thornburgh was responsible for implementing administrative reforms that restored trust to a faltering Department of Justice. Equally significant was his role (with wife Ginny) in securing adoption of the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act, a landmark piece of federal civil rights legislation.

One would do well to contemplate the contrast of tone and achievements between Thornburgh and the current Republican hierarchy — in Pennsylvania and beyond.

William Cohen, a former U.S. secretary of defense and senator from Maine, made this point when interviewed on New Year’s Eve. Would there be a place for a Thornburgh or a Cohen in the current party of Donald Trump and his allies?

Meanwhile, Pennsylvania’s Republican caucus has little to contribute to addressing the national and local failures in the ongoing COVID-19 crisis. The caseload is burgeoning, the death count is rising, the public health infrastructure is fraying and the distribution and administration of vaccines lag woefully behind.

But Republicans like Smucker and President Trump’s state and congressional allies are aligning themselves with efforts to undo the 2020 presidential election. Their behavior is without precedent in American history.

If there was rampant fraud, aren’t their election results also subject to review? And why is it that across the nation and in the commonwealth, it is ballots from largely Black precincts that are often being challenged? I believe this is a more subtle but equally offensive effort at race- and class-based voter suppression.

In his January 2017 presidential inaugural address, Trump struck a discordant anti-government theme while promising a return of power “to you, the people.”

“The forgotten men and women of this country will be forgotten no longer,” he pledged.

The new president went on to blast “American carnage” and the failures of past administrations that squandered American potential.

Neither a king nor messiah, in the true spirit of a presidential jeremiad, Trump promised a new beginning and “I will never, ever let you down.”

“The time for empty talk is over,” he heralded. “Now arrives the hour of action.”

Sometimes, actions speak for themselves.

No one has a crystal ball, nor can we change what has occurred. As Congress convenes today for the ceremony of counting the certified Electoral College votes from each state, it is worth revisiting words spoken four years ago and how far we as a nation and a commonwealth have traveled. We should be willing to honestly confront the words and deeds of our elected officials, and dispassionately assess what is playing out before our very eyes.

Decades ago, a Pennsylvania newspaper published a scathing article entitled “The Shame of Pennsylvania.” Its contents were an indictment of state politicians who neglected the welfare of citizens while pursuing their own misbegotten agendas. Surely, history does not have to repeat itself this week.

For Republicans in the Pennsylvania General Assembly and Congress, “the hour for action” has arrived. So too has the moment for honesty, good government and principled leadership that serves the interests of their constituencies. Otherwise, shame may well fall on the commonwealth we treasure and the democratic institutions they pledged to defend.

Dennis B. Downey, Ph.D., is professor emeritus of history at Millersville University. His most recent publication is “Pennhurst and the Struggle for Disability Rights” (Penn State Press 2020).

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