The expected ouster of the third-ranking Republican leader in the House over her repeated rejection of Donald Trump’s election fraud falsehoods may not be the most acute issue facing the American people. Concerns over unemployment and possible inflation, attempts to persuade holdouts to take Covid-19 vaccines, President Joe Biden’s sweeping liberal agenda and a new cyberattack shutting down a pipeline are more urgent.
But the vote in the House Republican conference Wednesday may be the most fateful moment in a while, since it will further cement the disdain for democracy in one of the nation’s two great political parties. It will also show that for the House GOP, nothing — not even the protection of voters’ rights to express their will in free elections — is more important than moving in lockstep with Trump.
Sen. Lindsey Graham explained the equation when he was asked Monday whether there was a place in the party for anyone who opposed Trump.
“Sure, you’re just not going to be a leader of the party if you’re anti-Trump,” the South Carolina Republican said.
The vote will also once again expose the choice of Washington Republican leaders to put the fate of their party, and even their country, ultimately in the hands of a former President who used both primarily as a vessel to protect his own vanity.
It is clear that the leadership in the House, cowed by Trump’s popularity with the party base, is unwilling to contradict the false beliefs of voters convinced by the former President’s malicious assault on the election and by conservative media propaganda.
In a letter to Republican House members on Monday, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, a California Republican who had condemned Trump’s actions in the hours after the Capitol riot before he genuflected before the former President in a visit to Mar-a-Lago, said it was time to stop “relitigating the past.”
“If we are to succeed in stopping the radical Democrat agenda from destroying our country, these internal conflicts need to be resolved so as to not detract from the efforts of our collective team,” McCarthy wrote, alerting his troops to a vote on Cheney’s fate on Wednesday. “It’s clear that we need to make a change.”
‘Free thought and debate’
McCarthy’s letter was full of inconsistencies, however. The chief culprit in “relitigating” Trump’s election humiliation is the former President himself, who fans lies hour after hour and day after day.
McCarthy also billed his party as, unlike the “left,” a haven for “free thought and debate.” Yet Cheney is set to be toppled precisely because she was indulging such privileges by pointing out Trump’s falsehoods. And if tackling the Biden agenda was the question, then Cheney — one of the most conservative members of the conference, who has made one of the most coherent arguments against the White House’s multitrillion-dollar ambitions — would be an ideal weapon.
But the Wyoming lawmaker and daughter of former Vice President Dick Cheney navigated herself into an unsustainable position in a leadership group that puts loyalty to Trump ahead of truth.
Her likely replacement — Rep. Elise Stefanik, a more liberal Republican from New York — transformed herself into a member of Trump’s loyal Capitol Hill army to ease her lightning rise to power. In an interview with the Washington Examiner on Monday, Stefanik stood by her vote in the House to block the certification of Biden’s electors in Pennsylvania after the Capitol insurrection.
The ex-President’s more than 70 million votes in November also mean that Cheney is at odds with what the party’s key voters believe — even if it is not true. Rep. Adam Kinzinger of Illinois, another GOP Trump opponent, said Cheney was paying the price for putting the ex-President’s apologists in an impossible position. He said some colleagues were saying, ” ‘We need to move on Liz Cheney because she makes me have to answer questions that I know are false.’ “
Biden’s victory was upheld by multiple recounts, audits and court rulings. But Trump’s power in his party remains undiminished, as is shown by multiple Republican-run states that have passed bills making it more difficult to vote based on his lies about voter fraud.
Another member of the tiny band of heretics is Maryland’s Republican Gov. Larry Hogan, who condemned the “circular firing squad” in the GOP that guards Trump’s personality cult.
“It just bothers me that you have to swear fealty to the dear leader or you get kicked out of the party,” Hogan said on NBC’s “Meet the Press.”
Other Republican lawmakers live double lives. They are confronted with questions about Trump’s assault on democracy and Cheney’s fate by the Washington media but serve constituents for whom Trump is a hero.
Several Senate Republicans confessed unease about the move against Cheney on Monday, but also reflected political reality.
“To be honest, we’d do the same if the shoe were on the other foot, but it’s not good for our ability to get important stuff to be divided,” said Sen. John Cornyn of Texas.
“No one is talking about this,” said Sen. Rick Scott of Florida, who chairs the National Republican Senatorial Committee. And Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa said he was not concerned about the Cheney feud, commenting, “This is all inside the Beltway.”
While Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell has tried to move on by running a familiar obstruction strategy in the Senate, Trump’s influence remains strong in his chamber as well. The Kentucky Republican was disgusted by Trump’s actions but didn’t vote to convict him in an impeachment trial.
Trump would ‘take half the party with him’ if expelled, says Graham
Both McCarthy and McConnell will meet Biden at the White House for the first time in his presidency on Wednesday, the day that Cheney is expected to be toppled. McConnell is showing some signs of being willing to accept a traditional infrastructure package deal with Biden that sheds some of the President’s goals, like home health care.
The backdrop of the Cheney purge will be an apt metaphor for the way half of Washington is operating in familiar — if partisan ways — while the other half is purely concerned with a loyalty mission for Trump and McCarthy’s ambition to win the speaker’s gavel in November 2022.
Given Trump’s hold on his party, the House Republican leader may be making a shrewd choice — though a higher loyalty to democracy would indicate otherwise. Midterm elections often rely on the intensity of partisan base turnout, and only Trump can engineer such conditions in House elections. If it’s a choice between Trump and Cheney, it’s not really a choice.
“If you tried to run him out of the party, you’d take half the party with him,” Graham told reporters Monday.
Yet perpetrating the Big Lie of a stolen election might also turn into a big risk for Republicans. Trump, after all, lost the House and the Senate and the White House in the space of his single term. He also alienated some moderate and suburban voters, who turned to Biden to deprive him of reelection. And it has now emerged that party leaders in his thrall may be trying to hide the truth about such a backlash.
Two sources told The Washington Post that staff from the National Republican Congressional Committee had omitted details about how Trump was hurting party candidates in key battleground districts at a meeting in April. The ex-President’s unfavorable ratings were 15 points higher in those areas than his favorable ones, according to polling results later obtained by the paper.
Former Republican presidential nominee Sen. Mitt Romney of Utah issued a warning about the damage that associating with Trump could do in a broader national electorate wider than the GOP base.
“Expelling Liz Cheney from leadership won’t gain the GOP one additional voter, but it will cost us quite a few,” Romney wrote.
Yet Cheney’s ouster suggests that such a message from an orthodox conservative who cares about US democracy — and voted twice to convict Trump in impeachment trials — has no place in the modern GOP.