But today, Cheney’s willingness to stand up for a couple of basic principles — principles that in a sane party would be so self-evident as to not even require discussion — has her on the threshold of being purged from the GOP, or at least from her position in the House Republican leadership. One need not weep for her fate to understand that it illustrates something very dark about her party, something that will continue to characterize it for at least the near future — especially through the 2024 presidential election.
While there are other Republicans who acknowledge the fact that Joe Biden legitimately won the 2020 election, what distinguishes Cheney is that she has been doing so vocally and voluntarily, reiterating not just that undermining U.S. elections is a bad thing, but that it’s also bad for Republican officeholders to continually lie to their constituents. That she does this as the third-ranking member of the GOP House leadership is deeply offensive to those of her colleagues most in thrall to Donald Trump.
This is what those colleagues think of her, as The Post reported:
“Liz Cheney does not understand the responsibilities of leadership. She claims that I, and 146 other Republicans, violated the U.S. Constitution with our January 6th vote to challenge electors. She’s wrong,” Rep. John Rutherford (R-Fla.) said in a tweet Friday, referring to the 147 Republicans who contested the 2020 presidential election results. “She has now become an obstruction to leadership unity and should step down from her leadership duties as Republican Conference Chair.”
That came after Cheney said at a party meeting, “We can’t embrace the notion the election is stolen. It’s a poison in the bloodstream of our democracy.”
The person who may determine her fate is House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), who now appears to be ready to toss her overboard. “I have heard from members concerned about her ability to carry out the job as conference chair, to carry out the message,” McCarthy told “Fox & Friends” Tuesday morning.
This ought to have been predictable to those familiar with McCarthy’s history. When faced with a controversy his first impulse is often to do the right thing, but once the blowback comes from his right flank, he quickly reverses himself. After the Jan. 6 insurrection he said, “The president bears responsibility for Wednesday’s attack on Congress by mob rioters” — then was forced to fly to Mar-a-Lago to grovel before Trump.
In that, McCarthy is a perfect congressional leader for this period in the Republican Party’s history. Unlike his Democratic counterpart, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (Calif.), he does not rule his caucus with an iron fist, imposing order and keeping everyone moving in the direction he sets. His far-right members know they can push him around.
But in various ways, that will be true of anyone who wants to lead the GOP. We’ve stopped repeating “This is not normal” since Trump left office, but it is absolutely not normal that in one of our two major parties it is considered an unforgivable apostasy to say that the last election was legitimate and that lying to voters is wrong. Think about that. I can promise you that every Republican considering running for president in 2024 certainly has.
There will be times in that primary campaign when the candidates will be asked to say whether the 2020 election was stolen. They know that the true answer — of course not — will not be permitted. Telling the truth would make them the Liz Cheneys of that race — with zero chance to win, left only to plead that they are still Republicans in good standing. So they’ll craft answers that pander to their base without quite saying Trump won, something like “There were serious questions about the integrity of the vote, but like it or not Joe Biden is president, and that’s why I’m running.”
They know that most of their party has bought into Trump’s lie that the election was stolen; according to a recent CNN poll, 70 percent of Republicans say they don’t think Biden legitimately won the election, and 50 percent believe that there exists “solid evidence” proving that Trump actually won.
If any 2024 contender contemplated disabusing the party’s base of those beliefs rather than pandering to them, they surely rejected the idea in an instant. They may have thought back to 2016, when Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) called Trump a “con man," Jeb Bush called him “a liar and a whiner," and Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) called him a “pathological liar,” a “narcissist,” a “sniveling coward” and a “serial philanderer” — and each of them were mowed down in turn, because those things were exactly what the primary voters wanted.
The 2024 candidates aren’t going to make that mistake again. Whatever the base wants to hear — any lie, any conspiracy theory, any ugly impulse forged in the depths of their resentments and fears — the candidates will mirror it right back at them.
Unfortunately, that may not do them much harm at the ballot box, just as the party’s nihilistic, conspiratorial turn probably won’t keep it from regaining control of the House in the 2022 midterm elections.
Politicians seldom have much incentive to stand up to their base, no matter what that base thinks — unless their integrity prevents them from doing so. But in today’s GOP, integrity is in awfully short supply.