ANALYSIS — Liz Cheney’s tenure as House Republican Conference chair ended on the order of her colleague and onetime ally, Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy. Cheney took her principled stand, she said, to deny Donald Trump another shot at the presidency. McCarthy’s intolerance for that stand showed his single-minded focus is on becoming speaker.
“I will do everything I can to ensure that the former president never again gets anywhere near the Oval Office,” Cheney said after fellow Republicans removed her by voice vote on April 12.
Cheney, the daughter of former Vice President Dick Cheney, promised not to go into exile as “Never Trump” Republicans such as former Sens. Jeff Flake of Arizona and Bob Corker of Tennessee did, or to ally with the Democrats, as former Ohio Gov. John Kasich did in voting for Joe Biden, or to reach an accommodation with Trump, as onetime nemeses like Texas Sen. Ted Cruz did.
Rather, Cheney said she’d seek reelection in Wyoming next year and then, she implied, the presidency, if that’s what it would take to defeat Trump in 2024. “The nation needs a strong Republican Party. The nation needs a party that is based on fundamental principles of conservatism,” Cheney said. “I am committed and dedicated to ensuring that that’s how this party goes forward, and I plan to lead the fight to do that.”
On Jan. 13, Cheney was one of 10 House Republicans who voted to impeach Trump for inciting the invasion of the Capitol a week earlier by a mob of his supporters attempting to disrupt the counting of electoral votes.
Democrats framed the Republicans’ choice in removing Cheney as a binary one, between embrace of the former president’s relentless campaign to show that the election was stolen from him and Cheney’s vigorous denunciation of what she called Trump’s “crusade to undermine our democracy.”
But McCarthy is focused on the election next year, not the one in 2024. He’s aiming for a third path in which Republicans refuse to talk about Trump’s behavior, but use his star power as much as possible to keep GOP voters engaged. He wants to keep his caucus trained on making him speaker by making the 2022 midterms about Democrats’ failings.
For McCarthy, ousting Cheney wasn’t about embracing Trump’s obsession with 2020, but moving past it. “I don't think anybody is questioning the legitimacy of the presidential election,” McCarthy said the day of the conference vote to remove Cheney from her leadership post. “I think that is all over with.”
McCarthy now craves the strength of purpose derived from getting his party to fight proposals they oppose. History has shown that is easier, and in politics more powerful, than fighting for policies on which a party’s factions can reluctantly agree. In other words, it is easier to unite in opposition than to stay united in power.
Add to that a favorable redistricting landscape, and Republicans believe they can easily pick up the five House seats needed to make McCarthy speaker.
Cheney’s firing was about her decision to keep responding to questions about Trump’s wild election allegations, McCarthy explained to his conference. “If we are to succeed in stopping the radical Democrat agenda from destroying our country, these internal conflicts need to be resolved,” he wrote in a May 10 letter to fellow Republicans.
In dismissing Cheney, McCarthy removed one obstacle to GOP reconciliation that was under his control.
But Trump is not under his control.
The former president remains fixated on relitigating the 2020 election, backing a partisan recount in Arizona and claims of election malfeasance wherever they appear.
McCarthy cannot stop him so he’s straddling a line between alienating Trump and using his continued popularity with the GOP base to position the party for 2022. After initially decrying Trump’s role in provoking his supporters to invade the Capitol on Jan. 6, McCarthy went to Mar-a-Lago and posed for smiling photographs with Trump.
Cheney couldn’t stomach McCarthy’s Machiavellianism. She called the visit at the former president’s Florida home three weeks after the deadly riot “really stunning” in an interview with NBC’s Savannah Guthrie. “I can’t understand why you would want to go rehabilitate him.”
But it’s easy to understand. McCarthy knows the midterm elections, in which turnout is much lower than in presidential years, will turn on which party can motivate its base to cast ballots. Trump demonstrated in January’s runoff Senate elections in Georgia, in which he sowed doubt about election integrity, that he can depress GOP turnout. He also showed in November’s general election that he can boost it.
And Trump, like no previous president in modern times, has both retained the loyalty of his voters after leaving office and sought to remain in the limelight.
If McCarthy can harness Trump’s energy in a way that turns out GOP voters without simultaneously motivating Democratic ones, he thinks he will coast to the speakership. If the opposite occurs, Cheney has set herself up to fill the void.