Is she the political moderate who once sought to distance herself from Donald Trump, even going so far as to accuse the former president of making it harder for Republicans to appeal to female voters? Or is she the right-wing firebrand whose fierce loyalty to Trump fueled a meteoric rise to the upper ranks of G.O.P. leadership? Such questions are interesting to ponder, but I’d caution against trying to answer them unless you’re a mind-reader, and perhaps not even then. The North Country Republican has been the subject of countless articles and op-eds examining her transformation from Trump critic to Trump defender, and at the core of all of these pieces is a puzzling mystery:
Who is the real Elise Stefanik?
For a long time, I thought that the real Elise was the intelligent, ambitious Harvard grad whose distaste for Trump was palpable during his first presidential run. That view began to change during Trump’s first impeachment trial, when Stefanik threw herself wholeheartedly into his defense. By the time the Electoral College vote rolled around, I had grown accustomed to her support for Trump – but I was still a little surprised when she objected to certifying the results of the 2020 election. “Maybe this is the real Elise,” one of my colleagues ventured. Maybe. But who can say for sure?
It’s easy to get bogged down in questions of who Stefanik is and what she really believes, but the only thing that really matters is her behavior – her words and actions. And her behavior suggests that the real Elise Stefanik is the shrewd political opportunist who cast her lot with the Trump wing of the GOP, and that those hoping she’ll come to her senses and return to her more moderate, bipartisan roots are going to be sorely disappointed. Frankly, I’ve found Stefanik’s political trajectory disappointing, but not especially surprising. In embracing Trump, she seized the chance to cement her status as a rising political star. She sensed where the political winds were blowing, and charted a new course for herself.
Where Stefanik goes from New York’s 21st District is anyone’s guess, but I suspect she’s destined for even bigger things – a cabinet position, perhaps, or vice presidential nod. Her core values and beliefs might be difficult, if not impossible, to discern, and the question of what she really stands for might hang over her for years, even decades. Who is she really? The answer is unknowable, a mystery that can never be solved.