How Purging Liz Cheney From Leadership Will Backfire for the GOP
The conventional wisdom that the GOP can survive only by further appeasing Trump is wrong.
If House GOP leaders move forward with their plan to purge Liz Cheney from leadership, they won’t solve any problems but will instead create even bigger ones for themselves, former President Trump, and the entire GOP.
The drawn-out and ham-fisted public campaign to humiliate Cheney for the crime of refuting Trump’s lies has gratuitously insulted not just Cheney, but, by extension, millions of Americans who are permanently unsettled by the events of January 6. The message to conscientious objectors uncomfortably hanging around the GOP is this: You’re not welcome, get out. Even Peggy Noonan is calling the move “cowardly.” She writes, “It will make the party look stupid and weak, as if it can’t tolerate dissent.” Is President Reagan’s premier speechwriter no longer welcome in today’s GOP?
For all of Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy’s lip service to the GOP being a “big tent,” the move will take a shrinking tent and make it even smaller. Voters registration for Republicans is down across the country after January 6 including in key states like Pennsylvania, North Carolina, Arizona and Colorado. Meanwhile, Trump loyalists at the NRCC are allegedly hiding abysmal poll numbers for the former president from House members. To survive and compete, the GOP desperately needs leaders who can not only handle the truth (and electoral math) but speak it.
Party loyalty arguments never work in the real world, where voters value loyalty to the American team over the Republican team. For years, GOP leaders and the establishment attempted to intimidate my old boss Tom Coburn into submission with party loyalty guilt trips. When he attacked individual pork projects backed by Republicans, the party would say, “How dare you?” Coburn would retort, “No, how dare you?” The fake outsiders at Mar-a-Lago who are now today’s GOP establishment are equally tone deaf.
Here’s the problem that is obvious to voters: If GOP leaders in both chambers were doing a better job containing Trump, Cheney wouldn’t need to comment. Their pleas of “but we need a conference chair to speak for the conference” argument or “see, we replaced a woman with a woman” (albeit one who is more ideologically moderate and won’t challenge Trump’s lies) won’t connect beyond the Always Trump echo chamber. In 2022 races, these dogs won’t hunt, especially with suburban female voters.
The meaning is obvious. Trump matters more than truth. The post of GOP conference chair is now a third-party validator for CNN and Vox. “With Cheney's impending ouster, the GOP chooses Trump over principle,” CNN writes. “The Big Lie is the GOP’s one and only truth,” according to Vox.
The problem for the GOP is conservative outlets like the Wall Street Journal opinion section and National Review are making the same argument, and they are right.
In its piece, “Liz Cheney is Not the Problem,” NRO dismantles the Always Trump case: “The problem isn’t that Cheney is making controversial statements; the problem is that Republicans consider her obviously true statements to be controversial.”
House GOP leaders should rethink their power assumptions and have a conversation with the former president, who seems to want to be the acting House minority leader, whip, and conference chair. Their position is not nearly as strong as they think it is. For starters, they should remind Trump that the last time GOP leaders branded principled people on their own side “dissidents” who weren’t welcome, it didn’t end well for GOP leaders. I know because I staffed that effort.
In 1998, Coburn, then a sophomore member, came to me with a secret assignment to research and confirm the process for removing a speaker from your own party. After the 1998 elections in which House GOP leaders fixated on Bill Clinton’s affair with Monica Lewinsky rather than on conservative policy, Republicans lost seats and were left with a narrow six-seat majority. Constitutional conservatives had had enough of then-Speaker Newt Gingrich. In hindsight, Newt’s offenses seem quite mild compared to Trump’s, but they shared the common, and offensive, desire to silence dissent. Newt worked to block members from offering fiscally conservative amendments and routinely tried to browbeat the group he called “you conservatives.” Meanwhile, Majority Leader Dick Armey belittled constitutional conservatives as “dissidents.”
I walked Coburn through a process called “vacating the chair” that allows a group of members equal to the size of a party’s majority plus one to effectively fire a speaker by giving him or her the option to either step aside or let Democrats elect one of their own as speaker. Coburn decided to move quietly, swiftly, and discreetly for tactical and optical reasons. A previous and sloppy coup attempt in 1997 failed. He didn’t want to give Gingrich a chance to assemble his forces. Coburn also had no interest in making the fight about himself, Gingrich, or any of the other “dissidents.”
To Gingrich, it was an ambush and a surprise, for sure, but the confrontation was also gentlemanly and merciful. The dissidents didn’t stab him in the back. They looked him in the eye and accepted the gravity of their decision. Gingrich didn’t know he was in mortal political danger until the sword exited his back. Not surprisingly, Gingrich was furious and lashed out at members he called “hateful” and “cannibals,” but the exercise provided an enduring warning to imperious party leaders: Be careful about trying to put people in their place, particularly when they are motivated by principle, patriotism and fidelity to the Constitution.
Should Republicans win the majority in 2022, McCarthy should not assume he is safe and that numbers are on his side. Having conservatives like Jim Jordan in his camp won’t offer any protection because today’s GOP is a party without flanks. It is Always Trump vs. everyone else. If the number of members furious about Cheney and the potential backlash (or whatever Trump says, does or is indicted for between now and then) exceeds the GOP’s majority margin in 2022, McCarthy may not become Speaker. He’s making a bigger gamble than he may realize.
Additionally, Cheney can fight back on a bigger stage. She can run for president and spend two years refuting Trump’s lies in front of the nation. She can also give Trump an ultimatum: Step aside and let another Republican become the nominee or she can pledge to run as an independent or under another party banner. Cheney may not be able to win outright but she can certainly win by boxing out Trump in favor of Mike Pence, Nikki Haley or anyone else she deems preferable.
Trump’s operatives are laughing off Cheney’s chances in a presidential run, but they have difficulty assessing power dynamics and consistently overstate Trump’s political standing. After all, this group was outhustled, outsmarted, outmaneuvered and outworked by Joe Biden’s lackluster campaign. Many Trump operatives were on social media last week bragging about how the “anti-Trump” candidate received only 3 percent of the vote in an 11-person race in Texas. They ignore the fact that the Trump-endorsed candidate received only 19 percent of the vote, which means 81 percent voted for someone else. The Trump-skeptical candidates actually received 14 percent.
Even if the Not-Always-Trump base of support is 3 percent, that’s more than enough to deny Trump another term as president. Trump lost in 2020 and barely won in 2016 when about 100,000 votes in three key states made the difference. Trump, of course, can create his own party but that would only prove Cheney’s point.
The unavoidable task for principled conservatives is to make the case that no one has betrayed Trump’s base more thoroughly than former President Trump. He not only lost a campaign he could have won, but he then threw the Senate to Democrats by railing against “election fraud” instead of boosting the GOP candidates in the Georgia runoffs. Winning the argument that Trump is betraying his base, and that he is the one most responsible for removing barriers to Biden’s agenda, won’t be easy, but it is true and necessary.
Thankfully, one member of Senate leadership is making at least a part of this case. Joni Ernst, the Senate GOP’s conference vice chair, said, “Unfortunately, I think there are those that are trying to silence others in the party … cancel culture is cancel culture no matter how you look at it.”
The conventional wisdom that the GOP can survive only by further appeasing Trump is wrong. In politics, appeasement is like money. The question and answer are always the same: How much is enough? Just a little bit more. Sacrificing Liz Cheney’s leadership post will only increase his appetite for another insufficiently loyal victim.
It’s also disingenuous for Trump loyalists to frame this as a proxy fight about the evolution of the GOP. This is not about the old guard vs. the new guard. It is about the Republican team vs. American team, right vs. wrong and the Constitution vs. chaos. The problem in 2021 is not with people wanting to go back to 1980. The problem is with people who won’t leave 2020.
Congress has plenty of visionaries who fought effectively before Trump and can carry on the constructive parts of Trump’s agenda. Former Sen. Rick Santorum mapped out blue collar conservatism long before Trump arrived on the scene. I discussed this with Santorum at length last week. Republican Study Committee Chairman Jim Banks drafted a memo that makes a thoughtful effort to map out how to carry Santorum and Trump’s agenda into the future. Banks and Cheney don’t see eye to eye but a party that doesn’t make room for Banks’ memo and Cheney’s critiques won’t exist.
This is indeed a time of choosing for the GOP. Serious conservative policymakers in both chambers are fighting for less government, lower taxes, health care choice and free market environmental stewardship. Making the entire conservative agenda dependent on the whims of one man is a risk they should not take, particularly when that man has already knee-capped their ability to slow the progressive march.
Cheney made it plain in her defiant floor speech Tuesday night that she is not going quietly. "Remaining silent and ignoring the lie emboldens the liar," she said. "I will not participate in that. I will not sit back and watch in silence while others lead our party down a path that abandons the rule of law, and joins the former president's crusade to undermine our democracy."
Cheney and her allies aren’t likely to flamboyantly telegraph their next steps but it is imprudent to assume they will be passive. After all, this crowd has fought tougher foes before and prevailed. They helped win the Cold War and defeat Soviet totalitarianism. Purging Cheney won’t end anything but will escalate a fight that may not end well for politicians who want to fight their own forever war against dissent.