To think through the choice Cruz and Hawley made, consider an alternative course they could have taken. (This is as good a place as any to note that Cruz is an old friend.) They could have actually rebuked Trump for his poisonous fantasies, acknowledged that Biden had won, and said that they were going to object to some states’ certifications because of the legal issues they had identified. In that case, their conduct would have still deserved criticism: Following, and building on, the Barbara Boxer precedent was not something Republicans should do. But the argument they made — that pro forma objections to certification have already become part of our politics, with no serious pushback from Democrats, and Republicans should not be judged more harshly for participating in the trend — would have had some weight.
But they would have deserved a lot less criticism than they have gotten, and I think they would have received a lot less too. The flipside is that they would have had to give up the reward they were after, too, and might well have faced the wrath of Trump and those core supporters.
Instead, they chose a course that they had to know would be interpreted by the fantasists as their full agreement: as support for the proposition that Trump had been cheated out of reelection, that there was a real prospect to “stop the steal,” and that other Republicans were just being weak when they refused to take action. Throughout the debate, and even now, Hawley has been saying that he has spoken for the doubting millions. But he hasn’t, really: He hasn’t spoken for the Republican voters who think Trump won in a landslide, or that George Soros had cheated them out of their rightful president.