Cheney has her work cut out for her. All but a handful of House and Senate Republicans are caught in the MAGA vise. The entire right-wing media machine is likewise devoted to the return of the Big Liar. It encourages a style of politics utterly without substance, resting solely on White grievance and cultural resentment.
While some Republican donors may quietly support Cheney, most are deathly afraid of falling out of favor with and losing access to the Republican power brokers. They would rather call Never Trumper Bill Kristol to complain about what has been lost than stick their own necks out in defense of truth and democracy. (“Alas, the Republican donors and the conservative elites are unlikely to say No. Learned helplessness is a balm for people who would rather avoid taking an uncomfortable stance,” Kristol writes of their refusal to stand up to the MAGA mob. “And so they stand athwart history, clucking their tongues and wringing their hands.”)
The MAGA cult, however, is not Cheney’s only problem. As became evident during the past administration, Republicans don’t believe in much of anything other than retaining power. Are they pro- or anti-Big Business? Protectionist of free-traders? Do they want to rebuild international alliances or go it alone? Are they climate-change deniers? Do they care about deficits (or only if they aren’t caused by tax cuts)? If you have not got a clue, you are in good company.
If Cheney is to slay the MAGA dragon, it will be essential to not only explain what she is against — historical revisionism, lying, coziness with Vladimir Putin, white supremacists — but also what she is for. The agenda of the GOP in which she spent most of her adult life is badly out of date and, frankly, unappealing in the 21st century. Tax cuts for the wealthy and for corporations may excite the donor class, but actual voters — especially those non-college-educated, White voters the GOP has been courting — would just as soon sock it to the rich. Repeal of Obamacare excites the public about as much as cutting Social Security and Medicare (that is, not at all). Even Republican voters applauded massive government intervention to battle the pandemic and recession, shrugging their shoulders about deficits. Be it good or bad policy, withdrawal from Afghanistan wins something akin to 70 percent approval among voters.
The Western conservatism of Barry Goldwater, Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush — as well as Cheney’s father, Richard — tilting toward libertarian especially on social issues and pro-immigration — is wholly at odds with a party dominated by White evangelicals playing on their congregants’ grievances and fears of replacement. On social policy, a third of Republicans are pro-choice and a majority support LBGTQ rights.
As a political matter, the GOP has cast its lot with a shrinking demographic (White, evangelical, older and rural voters) while alienating college-educated voters, women and younger adults. The base is too narrow to be sustainable, yet inching away from it risks losing whatever support Republicans can count on.
It would be much easier for Cheney and breakaway Republicans had the Democrats nominated Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) or Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) last year. However, much as Republicans would like to convince Americans that Joe Biden is a raving socialist, his policies do not strike a majority of Americans as extreme or exotic. They like the idea of subsidized child care, access to broadband and free community college.
There is no magic policy formula for breakaway Republicans, but they might start with three fundamental principles: Every legal voter should have easy access to a secure electoral system; America is not defined by race, religion or place of birth; and objective reality — be it in counting votes, measuring climate change or addressing a pandemic — is worth defending. That’s not much, but that is enough for starters.