The Morning Jolt

Politics & Policy

The Cold, Hard Facts about the Liz Cheney Saga

Representative Liz Cheney addresses the media during a Conference in Philadelphia, Penn., January 25, 2017. (Mark Makela/Reuters)

On the menu today: There’s one big issue consuming Republican politics these days. Since some of my comments on the last edition of The Editors were idiotically misconstrued as an effort to “cancel” Liz Cheney, let’s walk through the facts, step by step.

What’s Going on in the Fight over Liz Cheney in the House GOP Conference

In the suddenly all-consuming matter of whether Representative Liz Cheney of Wyoming should remain the House Republican Conference chair, here are the facts.

Donald Trump is still pretty darn popular among Republicans. He left office with an 82 percent approval rating among self-identified Republicans, and that was after the January 6 Capitol Hill riot. At the beginning of April, an Ipsos poll found 81 percent of self-identified Republicans still view Trump favorably. An early May Economist/YouGov poll found 58 percent of self-identified Republicans have a “very favorable” view of Trump, and another 20 percent have a “somewhat favorable” view of Trump. Ten percent characterized their view as “somewhat unfavorable,” and 9 percent characterized them as “very unfavorable.”

Not only is Trump popular, but at least half of those who identify as Republican believe what he says, even in the face of mountains of counterevidence. The same Ipsos poll found that 55 percent of Republicans said the 2020 election was “the result of illegal voting or election rigging,” and the same percentage agreed with the statement, “The Jan. 6 riot at the Capitol was led by violent left-wing protestors trying to make Trump look bad.”

Whether or not you think Republicans should still support and embrace Trump and his bonkers worldview, many of them do. A lot of the discussion surrounding Liz Cheney’s role in the House Republican leadership begins and ends with the sentiment, “The Republican grassroots should not feel this supportive of Trump and believe these things.” Yes, but they do, and these GOP grassroots voters do not appear likely to change their minds anytime soon. Any response from elected Republican officials who are critical of Trump has to account for the fact the Trump fan base is a big chunk of the party’s supporters.

Yes, there is some evidence Trump’s grip on the party has loosened a bit. An NBC News survey from late last month found “44 percent of Republicans saying they’re more supporters of Trump than the GOP, versus 50 percent who say they’re more supporters of the GOP than the former president.” But that’s still not a good spot for those who see Trump’s effect on American politics and public life as toxic and dangerous. A GOP civil war over Trump would just result in damage to both sides, further enhancing the advantages the Democratic Party and progressive Left currently enjoy.

There is no scenario in which galvanized anti-Trump forces purge the Trump supporters from the Republican Party — at least not anytime soon. But that NBC News poll did indicate that Trump’s support is slowly and gradually declining.

Trump is not going to change much from here on out. He is much quieter in post-presidential life than he was as president, which is not quite the same as saying he’s quiet. As noted yesterday, in addition to insisting that he won the 2020 presidential election, he is embracing every conceivable conspiracy theory about the election and insisting that the January 6 Capitol riot, “right from the start, it was zero threat. Look, they went in, they shouldn’t have done it. Some of them went in, and they are hugging and kissing the police and the guards.” Trump is not going to get any saner from here on out.

At this point, there is no plausible scenario where Donald Trump concedes he lost the 2020 presidential election, fair and square. Nor is there a plausible scenario where Trump leaves public life entirely, unless old age and Big Macs catch up with a man who turns 75 in July. (As Dan Patrick used to say on SportsCenter, He’s listed as day to day, but then again, aren’t we all?”)

In part because of the decisions by Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and YouTube to ban him, Trump has much less of a media megaphone than he did at the beginning of the year. From mid 2015 to January 2021, barely a day went by without Trump saying or doing something that dominated the headlines.

Despite Trump’s popularity among Republicans in polls, exactly how much influence he still has over the party is debatable. The first effort to oust Cheney from GOP House leadership flopped. A lot of Trump’s most high-profile loyalists keep stepping on rakes, or worse. God knows what’s going to happen to Matt Gaetz next. Lin Wood wants to be the GOP chairman in a state he moved to in February. Sidney Powell claimed in a court filing that reasonable people wouldn’t have believed as fact her assertions of fraud after the 2020 presidential election. “Trump TV” isn’t going to happen, and his much-touted new social-media platform is just a blog that allows users to share his posts on Facebook and Twitter.

(When measuring Trump’s influence over the party, I would not put a lot of stock in that Texas special-house-election jungle primary one way or the other. Yes, the candidate Trump endorsed, Susan Wright, finished with the most votes. But she’s the widow of the previous incumbent, and widows usually get a lot of public sympathy when they run for their late husbands’ seats. Wright won 15,052 votes, and second-place finisher Jake Ellzey received 10,851 to qualify for the runoff. What is clear is that up until recently, a Trump endorsement in a primary usually helped. In the 2020 cycle, 21 out of 23 Republican candidates that Trump endorsed in a primary won; Lynda Bennett and Denver Riggleman were the exceptions.)

At this point, Trump sounds as if he either definitely wants to run for president in 2024, or he wants to leave the door open to another campaign, to ensure he remains at the center of the discussion for Republicans through 2024.

The fact that Trump told Fox News’ Maria Bartiromo that he was considering Florida governor Ron DeSantis to be his running mate is an intriguing indicator that Trump realizes other, younger Republican figures who are still in office are exciting the GOP grassroots. (By the way, under the Constitution, the president and vice president cannot represent the same state, but it would be a simple matter for Trump to move his legal residence to one of his other homes in another state.)

Trump is extremely unlikely to be vanquished and driven from the Republican Party in a grand conflict. Conflict is the oxygen that keeps Trump going — that and media attention, and the mainstream media loves to cover Republican infighting. It is in Trump’s instinct and interest to maximize the intensity of every fight with every rival in the party, real and perceived: Cheney, Mitt Romney, Mitch McConnell.

As we saw in the Georgia Senate runoffs, Trump doesn’t hesitate in the slightest in prioritizing his hurt feelings and nutty conspiracy theories over what the Republican Party at any given moment. He will happily enable more Democratic wins out of spite.

You know who doesn’t win when the intensity of every fight is maximized? The Republican Party and conservative objectives as a whole.

While it is inconceivable that Trump would lose a fight over control of the party now, it is conceivable that the air may slowly leak out of the Trump balloon, month by month, year by year. The news cycle, the political environment, and the national discussion moves on to other things. Tucker Carlson is filling the media’s giant need for a “You won’t believe what he just said” figure. You notice no one is asking what the former president thinks about the proposed infrastructure plans, Biden’s stance on any foreign-policy issue, how to persuade the vaccine-reluctant, or the potential for a bipartisan police-reform bill. Trump is, at best, intermittently interested in policy and usually not interested in the details at all. Donald Trump is primarily interested in Donald Trump. He wants the national discussion and the news environment to be all about him.

The Republicans can win a majority in the House of Representatives in 2022 with just the slightest wind at their back. The single best chance for Nancy Pelosi to remain speaker of the House is for the Republican Party to be consumed with infighting.

You would figure that one of the upsides of the end of the Trump presidency is that we wouldn’t have to spend every day talking about Donald Trump and what he said and did. And yet, here we are, in May 2021, doing this all over again. We are in this spot because at least four major forces want us to be in this spot: Donald Trump wants people talking about Donald Trump; a media that loved the ratings his constant controversy brought wants people talking about Trump; Democrats who benefit from the outrage want people talking about Trump; and I suspect a lot of media figures who figured out how to monetize the #Resistance want people talking about Trump.

If you’re a House Republican, you need to maintain a delicate balance amidst forces who are trying to pull out as many Jenga blocks as possible. You don’t want to antagonize Trump supporters; you can’t win without them, and depending upon your district and level of support among your constituents, you could well lose a primary challenge from someone who runs, exclusively, on the issue of loyalty to Trump.

But you also don’t want to get tied into the maelstrom of crazy emanating from Mar-a-Lago — soon to be Bedminster, N.J. You don’t think Liz Cheney is a “warmongering fool,” you don’t think Mitch McConnell is “gutless and clueless,” you don’t think the 2020 presidential election is a “BIG LIE,” and you cannot believe people are looking for “bamboo fibers” in the paper for Arizona’s 2020 ballots to prove they were smuggled over from China. You just want to go back to being a conservative Republican and opposing the overreach of the Biden administration and its progressive allies.

I don’t think Liz Cheney should be replaced in the House GOP leadership. But for someone who wants to lead her caucus, she seems really comfortable with continuing her battles with Trump and either can’t or won’t “read the room.” No one else in the GOP House caucus wants to see endless new chapters of a MAGA/Trump vs. Cheney/NeverTrump fight from now until the midterms. It’s really, really difficult to be a maverick against the rest of your party and be a leader of that same party. John McCain demonstrated that.

As Jack Shafer observes, a lot of the people cheering the loudest for Liz Cheney now have absolutely no interest in the success of the Republican Party and overall want to see it fail. Not everyone, of course. But when Nancy Pelosi says, “I do commend Lynne [sic] Cheney for her courage, for her patriotism. And, uh, I wish her well. Perhaps this challenge will make her stronger,” it’s fair to ask who the long-term beneficiary of this fight is going to be.

Over at CNN, GOP political consultant Scott Jennings sees the situation as a win-win-win for Cheney, House Republicans, and Cheney’s likely replacement, in Representative Elise Stefanik. I’m not so sure. I see a House GOP leader who was comfortable publicly positioning herself as the leader of the anti-Trump faction within the party while trying to lead the caucus as a whole — a GOP caucus that is going to get painted as a cult that demands so much fanatical loyalty that they make the Branch Davidians look relaxed — and another few news cycles wasted on arguing about “What do you think of Trump?” and the 2020 election results, instead of what the Biden administration is doing in the here and now.

ADDENDUM: You know it’s an odd week when I write that the lack of unity among Senate Democrats, not the filibuster, is what is really blocking the agenda of progressives, and the New York Times’ David Leonhart links and approves.


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