Betsy DeVos & the Death of the GOP

If you weren’t already convinced that the Republican Party was Donald Trump’s personal property, the 2020 Republican National Convention demonstrated that–lock, stock & barrel–the party of Dwight Eisenhower, John McCain, the two Bush presidents, Ronald Reagan, and Abraham Lincoln no longer exists.

How did this happen?  Will historians be able to point to a moment in time when Trump, a classic bully, might have been stopped if the GOP had stood up to him, instead of appeasing him? 

Historians generally agree that, when Western powers failed to stand up to Hitler after his annexation of Czechoslovakia, the die was cast.  “Peace for Our Time” was promised by Chamberlain in his and Hitler’s Munich Agreement of September, 1938, but as we know World War II soon followed.   While there were earlier events (such as The Night of the Long Knives in 1934) where strong responses to Hitler’s bullying and posturing might have forced him to back down, most see the Munich appeasement as the point of no return.

The House and Senate are a co-equal branch of government with the Constitutional responsibility for ‘advice and consent‘ on Presidential appointments and foreign treaties.  Under Republican control, they had numerous opportunities to assert their prerogatives after Trump’s election in November, 2016, but I believe the Senate’s own “Munich Moment” was its approval of Betsy DeVos on February 7, 2017 as the 11th Secretary of Education.  Their behavior then told Trump that he could do whatever he wanted….and he has.

At least three Republican Senators on the relevant Senate Committee knew Betsy DeVos was an unqualified, uncurious religious zealot with a long record of undermining public education, but they voted to approve her anyway.

All ten previous Secretaries of Education, Republicans and Democrats alike, were supporters of the institution of public education, with the possible exception of William Bennett, a conservative skeptic.  DeVos, however, was openly opposed to public schools, preferring religious schools. She and her husband (of Amway fame) used their position and their money to “Christianize” education.

“Betsy DeVos … described her efforts, using the biblical term “Shephelah,” an area where battles — including between David and Goliath — were fought in the Old Testament.  “Our desire is to be in that Shephelah, and to confront the culture in which we all live today in ways that will continue to help advance God’s Kingdom, but not to stay in our own faith territory,” she said.   ….

School choice, they say, leads to “greater Kingdom gain.” The two also lament that public schools have “displaced” the Church as the center of communities, and they cite school choice as a way to reverse that troubling trend.”

The Republican-led Senate was well aware of DeVos’s radical views, when then President-elect Trump nominated her on November 23, 2016.*  The nomination went to the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions, chaired by Lamar Alexander, himself a former US Secretary of Education.

DeVos embarrassed herself in her responses to questioning by Democrats, not just by suggesting that teachers needed guns in case bears attacked their school. Time and again, she demonstrated how little she knew about public schools.

I don’t recall Lamar Alexander’s telegraphing his disapproval, but he must have been appalled at the thought of DeVos running the Department of Education.  Two Republican members of the Committee, Susan Collins of Maine and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, were convinced that DeVos wasn’t up to the job.  Since the 23-person Committee was made up of 12 Republicans and 11 Democrats (unanimous in their opposition), all it would take was a single Republican vote against the DeVos nomination to keep it from going to the Senate floor, dooming it to defeat. 

Just one vote….and two Republicans (plus Chairman Alexander) knew that she was the wrong person for the job.  So would they do the right thing? Would they assert the Senate’s ‘advice and consent’ responsibility?   Would they tell Trump that he had to send a different name, someone with credentials?

Well, you know they did none of these things. Instead, they maneuvered to try to make themselves appear to be courageous.   They were anything but.  In truth, they deserve their own chapters in a “Profiles in Political Cowardice” book.

But it’s interesting to speculate on what might have gone on behind the scenes.  Did Alexander call Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and say something like “DeVos is unqualified. We can’t send this nomination to the Senate floor. I have two Republicans who want to vote against her (and so do I).  We have to tell Trump to send us someone else.”

But even if Lamar Alexander was willing to hold his nose and vote for DeVos, what about Collins and Murkowski?  How could they vote for DeVos?  Did they dare to defy Trump? Would they stand up for the Senate’s Constitutional ‘advice and consent’ responsibility for Presidential nominations?

Mitch McConnell can count and knew that, with a 52-48 margin in the Senate, he could lose two Republicans and still get DeVos approved, because Vice President Mike Pence was empowered to break ties.  Apparently promising Collins and Murkowski that they could look strong on the Senate floor was enough to get them to approve DeVos in committee.  So they caved.

And on February 7, 2017, DeVos was confirmed by the Senate, 51-50, with Pence breaking the tie.  It was the first time in U.S. history that a Cabinet nomination was decided by the Vice President’s vote.

The faux defiance by Collins and Murkowski may have fooled their constituents (most likely all they cared about), but Trump and his minions saw right through it. They recognized it for what it was, an act of surrender.  They knew, going forward, that Collins and Murkowski could be bullied, although perhaps with a little bit of special handling.

Of course, McConnell was in their pocket anyway, because his wife had been appointed to Trump’s cabinet.

DeVos has done substantial damage to public education, including a brazen effort to divert Covid-19 relief funds to private and religious schools, so perhaps it’s worth at status report on the Republican members of that Senate Committee.  Here’s the list:

Lamar Alexander, Mike Enzi, and Pat Roberts are about to retire from the Senate, and Orrin Hatch and Johnny Isakson have already departed.  Lisa Murkowski is not up for re-election this fall.  Only Bill Cassidy of Louisiana and Susan Collins of Maine are standing for re-election in November.  Cassidy is a lock, but Collins is fighting for her political life and is facing a worthy opponent, Sara Gideon, the Speaker of the Maine House of Representatives.

Those of you who believe that a strong public education system is essential to our society might consider helping send Susan Collins into retirement.  Call it your way of ‘thanking’ Senator Collins for not having the courage of her convictions–and for giving us the worst US Secretary of Education imaginable.  Here’s how to contribute to Sarah Gideon.

Suppose the Senate–meaning Collins, Murkowski, and Alexander–had done the right thing? That act would have sent Trump a clear message that the United States Senate wouldn’t rubber stamp whoever Trump sent up, that it would take seriously the responsibility for quality control.

Would the bullying have stopped? Of course not, but it’s also possible that, when other Senators noticed that Collins and Murkowski had defied Trump and were still walking around, unscarred, they might have resolved to do what they had sworn to do.

It’s even possible to imagine some Senators voting to hear the evidence for an impeachment trial (particularly the Senators who served on the Intelligence Committee that had already seen convincing evidence that Trump and his team were actively involved with the Russians prior to the 2016 election).

That would have changed our history.  So for me anyway, the vote to approve Betsy DeVos is the moment when the U.S. Senate became Trump’s lackey.


  • Fun fact: Trump’s first choice for Secretary of Education was the now-infamous Jerry Falwell, Jr, who told CBS he turned down the job because Trump wanted at least a 4-year commitment that Falwell said he couldn’t make because Liberty University needed him.

5 thoughts on “Betsy DeVos & the Death of the GOP

  1. […] But Merrow identifies a day when he says the GOP as we once knew it actually died: The day that Betsy DeVos was confirmed as Secretary of Education. Actually, it was two days. The first was when the Senate Committee approved her nomination, with the assent of Lisa Murkowski and Susan Collins, despite her inability to answer the most basic questions about education law or practice. The second was when the Senate confirmed her. […]


  2. Hi John!

    As always, I love reading your thoughts. This piece on key moments in history coincidentally reminds me of an interesting podcast I am currently listening to called The Bomb, by Emily Strasser (BBC). It’s fascinating how a letter, or conversation, or a vote cast in fear can change the course of history.

    And since I’m writing to you, I just have to ask — even though I’m sure the answer is yes — if you have already heard the podcast called “Nice White Parents.” I thought of your work often while I was listening to it!

    Take good care in these difficult times! (We’re doing well. We’ve been living on the Italian side of the Monte Bianco (Mont Blanc) for over a year now, and I’m glad to be here during the pandemonium.)

    Alethea (Elise’s old friend!)

    El jue., 27 ago. 2020 a las 17:18, The Merrow Report () escribió:

    > John Merrow posted: “If you weren’t already convinced that the Republican > Party was Donald Trump’s personal property, the 2020 Republican National > Convention demonstrated that–lock, stock & barrel–the party of Dwight > Eisenhower, John McCain, the two Bush presidents, Ron” >


    • “Nice White Parents” is on my list, but I haven’t listened to it yet. I will put “The Bomb” on our list too. Our podcast routine usually involves car time, but we have been hiding out on an island since mid-March and probably haven’t driven 300 miles in total in 5 1/2 months.
      What a pleasant surprise to hear from you, and of course I remember you, and fondly. Elise keeps us up-to-date on your marvelous adventures.


  3. Thanks, John, for your excellent synopsis of this travesty. In Maine now watching TV ads dominated by Sara Gideon and Collins – and feeling optimistic that Sara can beat Collins.


  4. John, Brilliant as usual. I feel frustrated as I know my foundation has a place here in offering top quality educational curriculum for remote and in school learning seamlessly giving options for safe schooling during Covid. A real plan with educational materials to support teachers in the effort to teach while getting schools funded and ready for a safer return is what our country needs.

    The Digital Education Project provides the solution to the Covid-19 Virus/School Dilemma.

    The Project’s revolutionary new Interactive Multimedia Digital Education Technology Schoolbooks (IMDETS) provide options for our state school systems, administrators, teachers, students, and parents, which will eliminate both mental and physical suffering and save many, many lives.

    This amazing technology allows teachers to teach from either home or classrooms to students at home or in the school classroom.

    IMDETS give school administrators the options to open schools for the students who need special assistance or simply cannot learn from home due to lack of supervision, access to computers, internet, or special needs.

    At the same time, this Program radically reduces the number of students that need to be in the school classrooms, thus greatly reducing the possibility of contracting the disease.

    The Program will immediately help contribute to slowing the growth of the virus and eventually play a large part in eliminating the pandemic!

    Regardless of the time required to return to the normalcy and recognized advantages of the in-person/in-classroom environment, the many sophisticated features of the 21st Century IMDETS will excite, engage and revitalize our currently bored and frustrated technology-starved students with a new way to read, study and learn, which will stimulate them to remain in school and partner with their teachers in a new educational experience every day!


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