Bookman: Recalling Zell while Geoff Duncan risks ‘doing the right thing’

Columnist Jay Bookman writes that Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan is an ambitious Republican politician who will likely be running for re-election in the Republican primary next year in a state where Trump is treated as a beloved martyr by the Republican base, and every time Duncan criticizes Trump he makes a primary challenge more likely. Stanley Dunlap/Georgia Recorder

Republicans don’t need election reform to win. We need leadership,” Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan told Chuck Todd on NBC’s “Meet the Press” over the weekend. “I think there’s millions of Republicans waking up around the country that are realizing that Donald Trump’s divisive tone and strategy is unwinnable in forward-looking elections. We need real leadership, we need new focus, a GOP 2.0 that includes moderates in the middle, to get us to the next election cycle.”

I’ve been asked repeatedly what Duncan is up to with such statements. I keep not having a good answer. He’s an ambitious Republican politician who, we assume, will be running for re-election in the Republican primary next year in a state where Trump is treated as a beloved martyr by the Republican base, and every time Duncan criticizes Trump he makes a primary challenge more likely.

Yet he keeps doing it. If there’s some angle to his continued candor, some master political plan behind his show of honesty, I’m frankly not seeing it.

Duncan also continues to oppose Republican legislation attempting to create obstacles to voting, such as ending no-excuse mail-in balloting and reducing the opportunity for early and Sunday voting. Earlier this month, when the GOP majority brought a major voter-suppression bill to the Senate floor, Duncan refused to preside, handing over his gavel and leaving the chamber, making it quite clear that he was doing so in protest.

“I’m going to stay focused on doing the right thing,” as he told Todd. “This started shortly after the November elections, when all this misinformation started flying up. Quite honestly it hurt Republicans in any sort of conversation about election reform. We lost credibility. Those are 10 weeks that we can’t take back. January 6 was a pivot point for this country and this party.”

“Doing the right thing” … could that be Duncan’s angle? We see such a motive so seldom these days that maybe it’s hard to recognize when we run across it. Experience tells us to dismiss the possibility, to look instead for more nefarious motives, but again, I’m not sure what those motives might be. Is “earnest” even an angle?

Todd also asked Duncan for his thoughts about a criminal investigation into Trump’s interference in Georgia’s election system. The focus of the probe, launched by Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis, is Trump’s notorious telephone call to Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger seeking the reversal of 11,800 votes, enough to swing Georgia into Trump’s column.

“Look, I was disgusted with that call when I first heard it,” Duncan said. “We had played for almost 10 weeks with President Trump and his entire apparatus attacking us here for running a fair and legal election. I’m going to stay out of the way of the law and let them do their job.”

There are few things more risky in politics than telling people the truth before they’re willing to hear it. Then-Gov. Zell Miller took such a risk back in 1993, when he challenged the state Legislature to strip the Confederate emblem from the state flag, calling the vote “a matter of sheer guts.”

“Will you do the easy thing, or will you do the right thing?” Miller asked in his now-historic speech. “When your grandchildren read about this in school and ask you how you voted, will you be able to answer in a forthright manner, or will you say, Well, you see, the polls looked bad back then'? OrI wanted a referendum first’?”

“Will you proudly act as an individual, or will you just go along with the mob?”

Miller failed to get the flag changed, but his political career survived the mistake of being right before his time. The task was later picked up by Gov. Roy Barnes, who in 2001 succeeded in changing the flag and then paid for it by losing his re-election bid. So when we ask why Duncan is doing all this, it strikes me that we’re asking the wrong question of the wrong people.

Instead of wondering why Duncan is saying such things, we ought to be wondering why most of his fellow Republicans are not. The lieutenant governor is right: Trump lost the election, fair and square. He lost because the American people rejected what he stood for, and they will reject it again and again if it is again offered to them. And the GOP’s reaction to that loss — “a knee-jerk reaction to an election that quite honestly didn’t work out our way,” as Duncan put it — has been a shameful effort to rewrite the laws to discourage people from voting. In effect, it is an admission that their party cannot compete on the battlefield of ideas, that it cannot win a fair contest, that it has given up on democracy and seeks another means to power.

There has to be a better way.

“Republicans, believe it or not, I know you,” Zell Miller said back in ’93, appealing for GOP support in changing the flag. “I respect your traditions. And the rebel yell of the Lost Cause sounds especially harsh and awkward in your throats. Your vote on this issue will say much about where you want to take the party of Lincoln in a changing state.”

Again, the issue at the time was the state flag. Today, almost 30 years later, it is voting rights. Different times, different issues, but in many ways it’s still the same issue, fought over and over again. The question is the same too:

“Will you do the easy thing, or will you do the right thing?”