Unlike the previous (and failed) attempt to get rid of Cheney in early February, the Wyoming Republican appears to be putting up little resistance, not working the phones or cajoling colleagues in an attempt to save her skin. It’s not clear (at all) whether Cheney could even save her leadership job — there’s ample reporting that suggests she has lost support since that February vote — but it is notable that she isn’t fighting to keep it.
And it raises this question — or actually these two questions: 1) Why is Cheney willing to be pushed aside by her colleagues and 2) What does she want to do next?
Luckily for us, we don’t have to guess at the answers to those questions. Cheney wrote an op-ed in The Washington Post on Wednesday night that, read carefully, makes clear why she is doing what she is doing — and where she is heading.
Let’s start with the “why.”
“The Republican Party is at a turning point, and Republicans must decide whether we are going to choose truth and fidelity to the Constitution,” wrote Cheney. For her, this isn’t about political calculation — or some internal party fight about how strongly they should come out against President Joe Biden’s infrastructure plan. This is far more fundamental, going beyond party to the founding principles of the country. As Cheney noted:
“I am a conservative Republican, and the most conservative of conservative values is reverence for the rule of law. Each of us swears an oath before God to uphold our Constitution. The electoral college has spoken. More than 60 state and federal courts, including multiple Trump-appointed judges, have rejected the former president’s arguments, and refused to overturn election results. That is the rule of law; that is our constitutional system for resolving claims of election fraud.”
Now for the “what’s next.”
While Cheney may not have political calculus front and center in her decision-making process about her views on former President Donald Trump, the January 6 insurrection and the effort to remove her from office, it’s impossible to consider her decisions outside of the context of politics.
Cheney understands that there is simply no road forward for her in the current iteration of the Republican Party in Washington. That’s been made plain not only by House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy and Minority Whip Steve Scalise’s willingness to turn on her to pay homage to Trump but also by the person — New York Rep. Elise Stefanik — being touted to replace her. Stefanik, a one-time moderate, has become a national figure thanks to her aggressive defense of the former president during both of his impeachment trials. And for her willingness to not just support but vote for Trump’s Big Lie about the election being stolen in 2020.
Rather than charge at the windmill that is Trump’s total dominance of the current GOP, Cheney is hopping off her horse voluntarily. Which is a short-term loss (obviously you have more clout as a member of party leadership than you would as a rank-and-file member).
What Cheney is banking on is that at some point in the not-too-distant future, Republicans writ large will wake up from this Trump fever dream. And that she will be able to say not just “I told you so” but also note that she was willing to give up a career (or, at a minimum, her powerful role as a leader of the party) because she believed so strongly in the need for Republicans to get away from Trump.
If there is a turn from Trump — color me skeptical that such a turn is on the way anytime before 2022, or maybe more realistically 2024 — then Cheney is now positioned to be the most prominent person who stood on conservative principle when everyone else was kowtowing to a cult of personality.
“History is watching. Our children are watching,” wrote Cheney in the op-ed. “We must be brave enough to defend the basic principles that underpin and protect our freedom and our democratic process. I am committed to doing that, no matter what the short-term political consequences might be.”
Which sounds like a line from a “Cheney for President” announcement speech coming to Iowa and New Hampshire in the not-too-distant future.