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Opinion Republicans dodged a bullet on Liz Cheney. But they may still be in the line of fire.

Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) departs after a House Republican caucus meeting on Capitol Hill on Feb. 3. (Joshua Roberts/Reuters)

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House Republicans dodged a political bullet Wednesday night when they decided to retain Wyoming Rep. Liz Cheney in their leadership. It’s unclear, though, whether their decision not to discipline zany conspiracy theorist Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) will end up hurting their chances to retake the House.

Angry Trumpsters sought Cheney’s ouster because of her vote to impeach the departed president. That was always a fool’s errand, both because of her family pedigree and, more important, because of the voters for whom she stands as a symbol. The Republican coalition includes rabid Donald Trump fanboys who believe their hero can do no wrong and conservatives who only tepidly backed the former president and have now decisively rejected him for his role in whipping up the Capitol riot. Both sides need the other to prevail; ousting Cheney would have told the millions of anti-Trump conservatives they are not welcome in the GOP. The 145-to-61 secret ballot vote to retain Cheney shows that the majority of House Republicans understand that you can’t add by subtracting.

The decision to not remove Greene from her committee assignments was tougher. Her litany of crazy and offensive statements should be beyond the pale for any responsible party. Excising this cancer before it could infect the entire Republican body would have been the responsible thing to do. But the fact that the House Freedom Caucus and other hard-liners rallied around her made doing so politically difficult for House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.). Just as throwing Cheney out of leadership would divide the party, tossing Greene off her committee assignments would have alienated the hard right. In the end, the House Democrats’ decision to force an unprecedented House vote to remove Greene from her committees on Thursday gave McCarthy an out that he decided to take.

Greene’s future political impact then rests in her own hands. If she truly changes her stripes and stops making wild, unsubstantiated claims and racist statements, the danger may subside. She will remain a touchstone to mobilize the left, but if she didn’t exist, Democrats would find some other symbol to rally against. If the only thing against her is things she said before she entered Congress, swing voters likely won’t care much.

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The risk, of course, is that someone with such a long history of believing objectionable and loony things can’t stop. It’s one thing to loudly, albeit ineffectively, try to “own the libs.” Many GOP members of Congress spend much time doing this and don’t alienate swing voters. But talk of revolution, armed conflict or QAnon conspiracy theories will disturb the voters Republicans need to retake the House. If Greene continues her past behavior, Democrats will try to focus media attention on every episode to make the entire GOP appear unhinged.

Should that happen, McCarthy and House Republicans will be forced to revisit the question of whether to cast Greene from their midst. That’s ultimately what they had to do with former Iowa representative Steve King, whose continued flirtation with white supremacists and racist sentiments finally pushed the party to remove him from his committees in 2019. King subsequently lost his bid for reelection in the Republican primary, showing that there were lines that both leadership and GOP voters were unwilling to cross. Greene would be wise not to walk close to those lines as she settles into her congressional career.

She should also go the extra mile and not repay herself for loans she made to her own campaign. Greene largely financed her own campaign, giving her campaign more than $450,000 and loaning it another $950,000. Her most recent campaign financial statement shows her campaign still owes her $500,000. She has been using Democratic demands to remove her from her committee posts to raise hundreds to thousands of dollars from conservatives online, and says she has already raised more than $1.6 million. She’s legally able to use this money to repay herself, but that itself will become a story if she does. It’s one thing to have a reputation as a conservative fighter; it’s quite another to be known as the grifter in chief.

The Republican coalition is volatile and could easily break apart under stress. Democrats know this and will push hard on the fault lines to provoke such a breakup. All actors in this Republican play should refuse to take the bait. That means Greene needs to restrain herself, and all factions need to use their energy to fight the left rather than one another. If they can do this, then they can do more than fight a lost cause on Fox News; they can win the political war and preserve America.

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Read more:

Greg Sargent: Marjorie Taylor Greene’s most dangerous idea is hiding in plain sight

Ann Telnaes cartoon: McConnell pot, meet Marjorie Taylor Greene kettle

Paul Waldman: What the GOP war over Marjorie Taylor Greene is really about

Henry Olsen: Republicans’ best move with Marjorie Taylor Greene is to gerrymander her out of her seat

Colbert I. King: The GOP once knew what to do about problems like Marjorie Taylor Greene