Editorial: What side of history is Rep. Zeldin on?

As we have watched events unfold in the nation’s Capitol, and followed our congressman’s role in these events, we’ve been reminded of something Ronald Reagan said when he was governor of California in 1967: “Freedom is a fragile thing and it’s never more than one generation away from extinction.” 

Powerful words. What he meant is that a generation can come along, even two and a half centuries after the ratification of the Constitution, and throw it all away. Not all at once, but through small steps and then much bigger steps, until the most fundamental of constitutional principles — the rule of law — is thrown aside in favor of rule by authoritarian means.

On Jan. 6, a ferocious mob, urged on by outgoing President Donald Trump, attacked the Capitol — destroying property, beating up police officers, hunting down representatives they hated, setting up a hangman’s noose outside and doing its best to disrupt the constitutional process of counting the electoral votes that gave the election to President Joe Biden.

The House of Representatives impeached Trump for the incitement — his second impeachment in four years. One Republican who supported impeachment was Liz Cheney (R-Wyoming). She said Trump lit the fuse that started the riot; she also said he lied every time he told his followers he really won the election and that his victory had been stolen.

Since then some of  Trump’s more unhinged followers have downplayed the riot, saying it wasn’t all that bad. Some Republicans continued to insist that Trump really won the election. One particularly off-the-wall Republican described Jan. 6 as a typical tourist day. It’s hard to fathom that magnitude of lying by an elected official.

Now the House is moving toward a bipartisan 9/11-style commission to investigate the events of that day. Ms. Cheney, who was voted out of her leadership position by her GOP colleagues, said she supports the commission, in particular its ability to subpoena witnesses. House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, a Trump loyalist, is against it.

On these two critical issues — the ousting of Ms. Cheney for her lack of support for Trump and the forming of the commission — Rep. Lee Zeldin (R-Shirley) has come down on the wrong side.

As for Ms. Cheney’s demotion,  Mr. Zeldin said in an email through his spokesman that he favored her replacement, upstate Republican congresswoman Elise Stefanik. “Unlike the false narrative being pushed about what this is all about, the biggest reason why a change needs to be made is that when you are the conference chair it’s especially never all about you. That is not the situation faced presently with Cheney in that role,” he wrote.

On the formation of a commission to investigate events of Jan. 6, he said: “An overwhelming majority of Republicans have condemned the violence at the Capitol on January 6, bipartisan investigations are already underway in several committees, the Department of Justice has made more than 400 arrests connected to January 6, with more to come, and the Architect of the Capitol is reviewing ways to improve security and eliminate vulnerabilities within the Capitol complex. 

“The duties of the proposed commission are already being carried out, but Speaker Pelosi wants to politicize this issue and distract from her party’s disastrous policies that are depressing the workforce and slowing economic growth.”

America needs to know exactly what happened that day, who supported it and which elected officials may have encouraged and supported this horrific attack on our democracy. A commission — if the House and Senate approve it — can provide the answers. It is also disturbing that Ms. Cheney, a conservative Republican, was tossed from her leadership post for calling out those who deny the Biden victory and for warning that a democracy cannot last long if its leaders lie.

In Gov. Reagan’s 1967 speech, he went on to say this about freedom: “It is not ours by way of inheritance; it must be fought for and defended constantly by each generation, for it comes only once to a people. And those in world history who have known freedom and then lost it have never known it again.”

Those who respect the Constitution and the rule of law must win this struggle.