Rep. Liz Cheney may be many things, but we are safe in assuming she is not stupid.
She must have known that fist bumping President Joe Biden, insisting Democrats are not the “sworn enemies” of Republicans and tweeting in all caps that “anyone who claims” the 2020 election was stolen is “spreading THE BIG LIE,” would cost her a House Republican leadership post and, by 2022, probably her House seat too.
Furthermore, as the offspring of the former vice president and ruthless bureaucratic warrior Dick Cheney, another safe assumption is that the congresswoman has an endgame. But what is it?
Two days before the fateful fist bump, Liz Cheney was asked by the New York Post if she would ever consider running for president. She responded, “I’m not ruling anything in or out—ever is a long time.”
If her plan is to run for president in 2024, we may want to reconsider the assumption that she is not stupid. All available data suggests the path for an anti-Trump politician in today’s Republican Party is imaginary.
Trump holds an 88 percent approval rating among Republican voters, according to an in-depth party analysis conducted in March by the Republican polling firm Fabrizio, Lee and Associates. Some 57 percent believe Trump should remain party leader. The same number would vote for him a presidential primary “no matter what.” Only 16 percent of Republicans would definitely vote for somebody else.
Cheney’s refusal to accept “The Big Lie” puts her squarely in the party minority. An April CNN poll determined that 70 percent of Republican voters believe “Biden did not legitimately win enough votes to win the presidency,” while an April Reuters/Ipsos poll found that 60 percent of Republicans think the 2020 election was stolen from Trump. There’s a reason why House Republicans are not interested in expending their political capital to defend her.
Besides, we’ve already seen people try to run against Trump in a presidential primary, and it wasn’t pretty. Try to think of Trump’s 2020 primary rivals without emulating Rick Perry’s most infamous moment (“Let’s see. What’s the third one there? … Oops!”).
Perhaps Cheney is interested in leading the nascent third-party effort being organized (or, to be more precise, threatened) by Miles Taylor, the former Trump administration official-turned-Trump-critic who wrote that anonymous book about Trump. Such a move would not be worthy of a political chessmaster. Cheney must know that most third-party efforts crash and burn. And those involved, according to the New York Times, appear to largely be Republicans who don’t hold current office and had already effectively purged themselves from the party. Such a group is more likely to shrink the Democrats’ big tent by depriving them of the right-leaning “Never Trump” vote, than becoming a major force of its own. While Cheney may not be concerned about the electoral prospects of Democrats, presumably she isn’t going through all this trouble just to splinter the Democratic vote and help Trumpian Republicans—possibly including Trump himself—regain power.
So what could Liz Cheney be thinking? I suspect the answer lies in the last five words of her statement to the New York Post: “ever is a long time.” The endgame is not winning in 2024, but winning control of the party after 2024.
Liz Cheney is the daughter of a man who served in high-ranking posts under Gerald Ford, George H. W. Bush, and George W. Bush. Surely she knows that parties are buffeted by events and change over time. And if events prompt the GOP to eventually turn away from Trump, the Republican who made the most prominent break with Trump would be uniquely positioned to lead the party.
Yes, the Trumpification of the Republican Party was brewing for a long time, going all the way back to the Nixon-era Southern Strategy. But let’s not forget: Just nine years ago, the party’s standard-bearer was Mitt Romney.
Today’s Republican Party is little more than a cult of personality. But how long can a cult of personality sustain, especially when the personality at the top is so widely unpopular? Last month’s NBC News poll pegged Trump’s favorability at 32 percent. (Even if Trump tends to underpoll by a few points because his supporters are less likely to participate in polls, that is an abysmal number.)
Parties can only lose so much before its rank-and-file members conclude, “the problem isn’t you, it’s me.” The experience of the Democrats in the 1980s and 1990s suggests a rule-of-three. To be beaten twice by Ronald Reagan in 1980 and 1984 could be excused by his unique charm. To beaten by charismatic Reagan and the awkward George H. W. Bush in 1988 convinced Democrats that they had their own internal problems to solve. So in 1992, exasperated primary voters were prepared to accept a moderate who breaks with liberal orthodoxy on welfare, the death penalty and the overall scope of government, and Bill Clinton met that moment.
Following other losing streaks in history, parties sought presidential nominees who could turn the page on their pasts. After losing five consecutive presidential elections to Franklin D. Roosevelt and Harry S. Truman over the course of the Great Depression and World War II, Republicans embraced the war hero Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower and reversed their fortunes with a nominee who had little interest on overturning the New Deal. Around the turn of the 20th century, Democrats lost the presidency twice in a row with the agrarian populist William Jennings Bryan, then tried the conservative Alton Parker and still lost, then lost again with Bryan, before finally succeeding in 1912 with the urbane progressive Woodrow Wilson.
Trump’s 2016 victory staved off a rule-of-three moment of reckoning for Republicans. But since then, Republicans have lost both chambers of Congress and the presidency. What if Republicans fail to take back Congress in the 2022 midterms? Then whiff in the 2024 presidential election? That would be a lot of losing to swallow. Would Republicans still let an unpopular Trump function as their de facto party boss? Maybe the cultish grip Trump has on Republicans is so tight, they don’t care if they lose. Or, they will keep storming the Capitol and denying reality after every defeat. However, history suggests losing parties eventually adapt to reality, for their own survival.
When the GOP is ready for reality, Cheney will be ready and waiting, because her defiant rejection of The Big Lie gives her the cleanest of breaks from Trump. Her actions are in stark contrast to former governor of New Jersey Chris Christie. He too has tried to distance himself from the insurrection. But he also said this month that he would give Trump an “overall” grade of “A.” Christie is straining to maintain some credibility with the party’s mainstream while also appealing to the anti-Trump minority. Cheney isn’t trying to blur any lines, and that may be to her benefit down the line.
The Atlantic’s Adam Serwer believes Cheney doesn’t deserve to be cleansed of Trump’s sins. Last week, he made the case that Cheney is not the antithesis of Trump, but the precursor, as she helped “build” the GOP “monster” over which Trump now presides. His case rests on Cheney’s scurrilous attacks against Obama-era Democrats for being soft of terrorism. Cheney “insisted that the president was secretly sympathetic to jihadists” and “launched a McCarthyite crusade against seven unnamed attorneys in the Obama-era Justice Department who had previously represented terrorism suspects.”
Serwer concludes that Cheney’s demagoguery and demonization “is the logic of the War on Terror, and also the logic of the party of Trump.” But drawing that connection between Cheney and Trump skips past the party’s ideological shift on foreign policy that widely separates the two.
Cheney is an old-fashioned conservative hawk who wants to treat Russia as an adversary. Trump is a quasi-isolationist promoter of “America First.” Cheney openly criticized Trump’s embrace of Putin. Last month, the pro-Trump website The Federalist charged Cheney with using reports of Russian bounties against American soldiers in Afghanistan—reports now treated by U.S. intelligence with “low to moderate confidence”—to “undermine Trump.”
The intra-party foreign policy divide is acutely relevant to understanding what’s driving Cheney’s actions. She was always uncomfortable with the direction Trump was taking the party internationally, and she wants to return the GOP to its late 20th century hawkish roots. Unless Biden takes an unexpected hawkish turn, expect Cheney to use her augmented media platform to swipe at Biden’s foreign policy in equal measure as she swipes at Trump’s mendacity.
This is why Democrats can’t get more excited about Cheney’s principled revolt; she is grounded in principles Democrats don’t share. In recent weeks she has argued against rejoining the Iran nuclear deal and against withdrawing troops from Afghanistan. Of course, Trump agreed with her on the Iran nuclear deal; his foreign policy vision was an ideologically inconsistent mix of “America First” isolationism and knee-jerk opposition to whatever Barack Obama did. But Cheney’s foreign policy views are deeply held and aggressively waged. She is unlikely to join with Democrats to stop Trumpism. She wants to unite her fellow hawks to stop Democrats and Trumpism.
But she must know she is in no position at present to lead an ideological army to win control of the GOP, let alone the White House. All she can do now is plant her flag, own her turf and wait until the moment is hers to seize—most likely after 2024.