Election Day is still over 100 days away, but the recriminations have already begun.
This week, observers were privy to more evidence that Republicans are fully aware of the scope of their political predicament. On Tuesday, some Republican congressmen mounted an apparently coordinated effort to indict House Conference Chairwoman Liz Cheney for, of all things, failing to display the proper fealty to Donald Trump.
Over at The Dispatch, Steve Hayes provides a thorough accounting of the assault on Cheney. He also places this event within its proper context—that is, “a preview of the post-election battles that will define the Republican Party.” Cheney was attacked on a variety of fronts. She was accused of failing to back Trump’s efforts to draw down the U.S. troop presence in Afghanistan and Germany. She was castigated for defending Dr. Anthony Fauci from the president’s implicit criticism. She was berated for backing Rep. Thomas Massie’s primary challenger when Massie (a man Trump himself called a “third-rate grandstander” the GOP should “throw out”) forced the House to reconvene amid the then-raging Coronavirus outbreak to cast a physical vote to pass a bipartisan relief package.
Hayes reports that Freedom Caucus co-founder Rep. Jim Jordan accused Cheney of not being a “team player”—a laughable charge from someone who once wore that same accusation like it was a badge of honor. If the GOP is routed on Nov. 4, Freedom Caucus chairman Rep. Andy Biggs suggested that Cheney would be at least partly responsible. When the dust had settled, Donald Trump Jr. burst onto the scene to read the subtext aloud: “We already have one Mitt Romney,” he tweeted, “we don’t need another.”
To call this rubbish would be unkind to detritus. Cheney reliably toed the party line when it was both advantageous and sensible to do so. As of last year, she enjoyed more support among her state’s Trump backers than even likely Republican voters. She has emerged a Trump critic (to the extent anyone in the House GOP conference deserves the moniker) only recently. But that is less a function of her political courage or some far-reaching designs on the future of Republican politics than it is of Donald Trump’s increasingly exposed weaknesses.
Cheney’s divergence from the president does include principled opposition to the president’s efforts to retrench from U.S. positions abroad, yes. But it has also taken the form of subtly jabbing at the president for refusing to wear a mask in public, for casually accusing MSNBC’s Joe Scarborough of complicity in a homicide, and for inviting the Taliban onto U.S. soil for talks—exactly the sort of conduct that has downward pressure on the president’s job approval ratings throughout his presidency despite relative peace abroad and prosperity at home.
Moreover, the notion that anything other than unconditional fealty to the president within the GOP conference would somehow spare the Republican Party from electoral disaster in November is a fanciful proposition. Last week, the Cook Political Report analyst David Wasserman announced that the Report had shifted its ratings in 20 House races, all in a direction that favors Democratic candidates. That is consistent with the prospects Republicans face on every level—from state legislatures to the U.S. Senate—and it all follows the deterioration of the president’s political position. The notion that the relatively unknown House GOP conference chairwoman is responsible for this condition strains credulity. If Republicans are breaking from Trump (and most are not), it is a function of his vulnerability and their shared exposure.
It does seem that the Blame Cheney theory of the 2020 race landed with a thud because its expositors rapidly transitioned away from labeling her a betrayal of the president and towards her support of an extroverted foreign policy. Sen. Rand Paul attacked Cheney for trying to “sabotage” the president’s Afghanistan initiatives. “Liz Cheney was one of the main obstacles to ending the war,” he insisted. Don Jr. added, “we also don’t need the endless wars she advocates for.” It will be news to longtime observers of American politics that the commander-in-chief’s preferences with regards to troop deployments can be thwarted by a relatively minor official serving in the minority party in the House. But, this, too, is a smokescreen. The tangible contribution Cheney made toward preventing hasty withdrawal of U.S. forces from South Asia involved leading a bipartisan effort to thwart Rep. Ilhan Omar from accelerating the pace of American retrenchment. Some traitor to the cause she is.
It is, however, telling that this insurrectionary effort to establish a scapegoat evolved into a debate over first principles. That is more defensible terrain to wage a fight over who will guide the Republican Party in the post-Trump era than what these House Republicans attempted: a crude power play intended to fix the center of political gravity within the party in their direction by presenting themselves as the true heirs to the president’s legacy. Scapegoating the few Republicans willing to criticize the president on principled grounds is a desperate attempt to stave off the inevitable. If Trump goes down in November by something approaching the margins by which he currently trails Joe Biden, he will likely take much of his party with him. In that event, no one will be spared reproach, least of all the president who engineered the party’s dilemma.