Liz Cheney Has to Go

The Wyoming congresswoman has herself to blame for her impending downfall

This essay by Varad Mehta is part of a Point/Counterpoint series provided by Arc Digital on the topic of Liz Cheney and the future of the Republican Party. For Kimberly Ross’s perspective, see here.

There will be a defenestration in the nation’s capital next week – and there are plenty of culprits one can charge for conspiring to transport it from the banks of the Potomac to those of the Vltava. Donald Trump, the anti-president now in Babylonian captivity at Mar-a-L’Avignon. House minority leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) and his deputy, House minority whip, Steve Scalise (R-La.). The majority of the House Republican caucus. Conservative media. The Republican base. But the person most responsible for Washington’s imminent transformation into Prague is the victim herself: Wyoming Rep. Liz Cheney.

Cheney, daughter of former vice president Dick Cheney, will be sent on the short journey tumbling through space because her coworkers have tired of her antics. There are other explanations for her demise, ones which will be more palatable in certain circles. But that doesn’t mean they’re wrong. The GOP does remain in thrall to Trump. Cheney is being rebuked for telling the truth about his incessant falsehoods that the 2020 election was “stolen” and for refusing to pay fealty to the party’s putative supremo. Yet the principal reason Liz Cheney will be booted from her position as number three Republican in the House of Representatives is that she alienated both her superiors and the rank-and-file membership of her organization, something no officer can do and expect to remain in her post.

Next week’s vote to remove Cheney from her role as Republican Conference Chair isn’t the first. She survived an initial motion of no confidence in February after she voted to impeach President Trump for his role in the January 6 riot at the Capitol, which she condemned as the greatest “betrayal by a President of the United States of his office and his oath to the Constitution.” She withstood the blowback comfortably, winning the vote 145-61 thanks largely to McCarthy standing behind her. And a secret ballot that spared individual Republicans who sided with her the wrath of pro-Trump media.

Though she hung on, there was always a sense that Cheney’s reprieve was temporary. As, indeed, it proved to be. The final rupture opened the last weekend of April. In an interview she gave on the eve of a House GOP retreat in Orlando, Cheney averred that challenging the certification of the presidential election was “disqualifying” for any potential 2024 Republican candidate. As CNN’s Chris Cillizza observed, that’s almost 150 Republicans, including three senators with clear ambitions for the White House – Josh Hawley (Mo.), Ted Cruz (Texas), and Rick Scott (Fla.).

By all accounts, Cheney was the buzz of the retreat. After the event, McCarthy chastised his deputy without naming her, telling reporters that “leaders eat last” and that if they strike out on their own, “it creates difficulties.” Asked whether Cheney was still in good standing, he replied that it was up to the conference. Anyone who was at the retreat and discussing anything besides policy was, he added, “not being productive.”

By the beginning of May, one anonymous GOP lawmaker told The Hill that things had reached “a boiling point.” This was not about Trump, he insisted, but “about Liz Cheney being completely out of synch with the majority of our conference.” Another of Cheney’s colleagues tweeted a prediction that she’d be gone by the end of the month. Earlier this week, a third called her “an obstruction to leadership unity” and urged her to step down. A fourth said that her “focus on the past” rendered her ineffective.

So it was true when McCarthy said on Fox News Tuesday morning that he was hearing from members who were “concerned” about her ability to fulfill her duties as conference chair and spread the party’s message. But those concerns were his, too, as he was caught on a hot mic grumbling that he was “fed up” with Cheney and had lost confidence in her. New York Rep. Elise Stefanik, a moderate turned staunch Trump defender, emerged quickly as the favorite to replace her, earning the support of Scalise, the tacit backing of McCarthy, and the most coveted endorsement of all from Trump himself.

The window is open. All that’s left is to push Cheney out. But how does someone who escaped an attempt on her political life in February find herself on the verge of political death three months later? Put simply, Liz Cheney is on her way out because she not only squandered the trust of her peers, she spurned it.

The Window Opens

The truth of the matter is that Cheney has been on thin ice for a while. Last July, several of her colleagues excoriated her for such deviations as backing a primary challenger to one of them and her repeated criticism of Trump. If you keep putting stress on thin ice it’ll give way eventually. Cheney, in her colleagues’ eyes, didn’t just keep putting stress on it, she used it as a trampoline. Even some who also voted against Trump in his second impeachment have become exasperated by Cheney and fear she is endangering anti-Trump Republicans who now are forced to answer more questions about her than about Joe Biden when they return home, according to Washington Free Beacon editor Eliana Johnson.

Much was made of Cheney’s easy victory in February. But this misread the situation. It was a matter of internal dynamics and cohesion. Kevin McCarthy backed her in order to put the January 6 debacle behind the party and to demonstrate that it still welcomed those who were lukewarm towards Trump. It was not a testament to her standing in the party.

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Yes, she’s the number three Republican in the House; but so what? She’s the Republican Conference Chair. Can anyone name any of her predecessors or explain what she does? Cheney is only in her second term in the House, yet is already the third-highest ranking member of the caucus. Is that because of any special merit or because she’s a woman who got her surname from a former vice president? That’s the only reason this is an issue at all. There would be no controversy if she were some irrelevant backbencher named Liz Jones.

As such, Cheney brings nothing to the job which a dozen of her colleagues wouldn’t. They can all raise cash and promote the party’s message. Moreover, they can do so without making themselves the story, something she is no longer capable of. Not many people will want to hear it, but Liz Cheney is expendable.

Cheney’s newfound status as a lone voice telling the truth in the wilderness of Trump’s GOP has made her a convenient cudgel for a media which likes only two kinds of Republicans: dead ones and those who criticize other Republicans. But she isn’t being asked to deny that Trump lost the election, or that Biden won it, or that it wasn’t stolen, or that the riot at the Capitol wasn’t awful. She is being asked to stop talking about these issues whenever someone shoves a microphone in her face. If she wants to do that, she can, but not as a member of leadership. Being in leadership means putting the interests of the group above your own. She won’t do that. Her colleagues are justified in replacing her if she won’t fulfill her obligations to the caucus. (Even if they don’t, polls suggest her constituents likely will.)

No one doubts how Mitch McConnell feels about Donald Trump. He reportedly was “pleased” with the second impeachment and “open” to convicting Trump. But when he realized the GOP was Trump all the way down, he decided discretion was the better part of valor and refused to make a self-defeating gesture that would have sabotaged the party, if not plunged it into civil war.

Trump still attacks McConnell all the time. McConnell shrugs it off and it’s a dead story in six hours. Nine House Republicans voted with Cheney to impeach Trump and seven Republican Senators voted to convict him. Yet for the most part, this consternation and angst doesn’t surround any of them. Sen. Lisa Murkowski isn’t constantly berating Trump and his supporters. Neither is Tom Rice, a congressman from South Carolina who has returned to the obscurity from which he momentarily emerged when he cast his vote against Trump. Has anyone heard a word from David Valadao, a California Republican who was one of the ten? Cheney is the only Republican of consequence still harping on Trump.

Leaving Trump in the past without constantly relitigating it is a defensible strategy, one some of her fellow Republicans are trying to implement. But not Cheney. Trump says something and she fires back, which causes him to take shots at her, then she responds, then he responds, and it keeps going and going. For months now. It takes two to tango. Liz Cheney and Donald Trump are each other’s favorite partner. Though this dance is more folie à deux.

If Cheney refused to talk about Trump, no one would think she suddenly likes him. Actions, after all, speak louder than words. And she voted to impeach him, a president of her own party. No words can equal, let alone surpass that action. They can, however, detract from it. Cheney can insist that she’s merely telling the truth, but the truth won’t stop being the truth if she doesn’t repeat it all the time. She could, for example, respond to reporters’ questions by saying everyone knows how she feels, that hasn’t changed, but she’s looking to the future, defeating Joe Biden’s “radical agenda” and winning back the House. But she offers nary a concession to the sensitivities of her colleagues. Little wonder, then, that even those who sided with her in February now oppose her.

The Window Closes

Political history is littered with the graves (some literal) of subordinates who became inconvenient or distractions. Cheney has become both to McCarthy. He stood up for her, and she repaid him by spitting in his eye. She was on probation and violated it frequently and flagrantly. At this point, therefore, a second vote on Cheney is also a vote on McCarthy. Even if he wanted her to stay, her estrangement from the bulk of the caucus makes that untenable. Only one of them can continue in leadership.

You will find no defense of Donald Trump here. My own view is that his behavior in the two months after the election and before January 6 was worthy of impeachment. But Trump’s being wrong doesn’t make Cheney right. That is, admittedly, a counterintuitive statement. Liz Cheney’s problem isn’t that she’s wrong, or that she’s being silenced for telling the truth. Her problem is that she appointed herself the messenger of a message that is not hers to deliver. Or as Philip Klein of National Review phrased it, one can believe “she’s right, but is now too unrepresentative of her party to help lead it.”

Such logic offends many. But it is nonetheless valid. A party cannot have in leadership a figure who undermines it and repels its voters. That is what Liz Cheney does every time she insists the Republican Party’s chief duty at the moment is to flagellate itself over Donald Trump. On those grounds alone, the party is right to rid itself of her. Or, in this case, relegate her to the backbenches.

Is this expedient, perhaps even unseemly? Yes, but that’s politics. I understand people dislike the way politics works, but people disliking the way politics works will not stop politics from working the way politics works. The sentiment that we shouldn’t move on or casually dismiss a grotesque violation of our constitutional and democratic order is a noble one. But it is very much a sentiment of ought, not is.

For the time being, Donald Trump is here to stay. This no doubt disappoints those who regard him as a stain on the body politic. But a forced separation from Trump would be more than the party could bear. Attempting one would probably shatter its coalition and sunder its electoral hopes. Little wonder it is less than eager to find out. As someone who quit the GOP the first day of the 2016 Republican National Convention, I, too, yearn for its liberation. Yet the Republican Party will only be able to free itself from Donald Trump if it doesn’t tear itself apart over him first. Politics is the art of the possible. With 85 percent of Republicans wanting Trump to retain some influence in the party, unshackling itself from him simply isn’t. Not at the moment.

Contrary to some of the old guard of conservatism, therefore, there are no “tough choices about the continued unity of the party” to make. The party is united because the choice has already been made. The vast majority of Republicans and conservatives accept that Donald Trump was president of the United States and was a Republican in office, whether they like it or not. The only ones who haven’t made peace with it are the rump who still cling to the fantasy that it can somehow be undone.

Nor, contrary to media speculation, will there be any Obi-Wan Kenobi scenario for Cheney. If struck down she will not become more powerful because she has no power. Not only is she “at odds with modern Republican thinking on both foreign and domestic policy issues,” but her main source of support now seems to be the decaying husk of the GOP establishment, GOP donors, and anti-Trump/pro-Democratic Republicans. In other words, what the columnist Henry Olsen characterizes as “the minority part of the coalition.” Cheney may be gambling “that the GOP will one day turn more significantly against Trumpism and that she would come out ahead.” But the forces she would restore to power in the party are no less retrograde than Trump’s. 

As it stands, the current dynamic poses a dilemma: Trump or Cheney. But both paths are dead ends. Whatever the Republican Party can do to preclude being led down either while allowing new ones to open it must. Including, as it soon will, purging Liz Cheney.

Every day the Republican Party is talking about the 2020 election and January 6 is a day it isn’t talking about Joe Biden, the Democrats, and 2022. It can’t do anything about Donald Trump, who out of office and now in Florida is beyond its reach. But it can do something about Liz Cheney. So it shall. That’s the reality, no matter how distasteful some people find it. 

Fighting about Trump’s role in the party is playing Trump’s game. Keeping the debate alive keeps him alive. No one does more to enable him in this regard than Liz Cheney. Trump’s presence on the media landscape is receding. Given his absence from social media, he needs others to amplify him. Taking the megaphone from Liz Cheney’s lips is the right thing to do.  Or to borrow a pop culture analogy, when it comes to Trump the best strategy is, “Just don’t look.” Liz Cheney won’t stop looking. So her colleagues are about to put out her eyes.

In the end, Liz Cheney’s forthcoming defrocking has everything to do with Donald Trump — and nothing. Many of those about to fling her from a window are sympathetic to her cause. They, too, wish to be free of Trump. But they are about to introduce her to the cobblestones of Washington because, as Eliana Johnson notes, they have come to the conclusion that moving on from Trump requires first moving on from her.

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Cheney survived the first attempt to remove her as a matter of party discipline. She will lose the second for the same reason. For both the GOP’s short and long-term prospects, her fellow House Republicans have concluded – correctly, in my estimation – that they must jettison her from leadership. Getting rid of Liz Cheney may be a price the Republican Party has to pay to get rid of Donald Trump. But if so it will be a necessary sacrifice.