The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion The stampede away from the GOP begins

Then-Department of Homeland Security chief of staff Miles Taylor, right, at the Capitol in March 2019. (Alex Brandon/AP)

Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.) threw down the gauntlet on Wednesday, refusing to accede to her party’s transformation into a cult. Calling out the liars in her midst, she is now House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy’s worst nightmare. “I think that he is not leading with principle right now,” Cheney said in an NBC interview. "And I think that it is sad, and I think it’s dangerous.” In other words: He’s a spineless pawn of the former president who will do his bidding no matter how outrageous the demand.

As Cheney tosses McCarthy (R-Calif.) around like a rag doll, she is making crystal clear how high the stakes are in 2022. A MAGA Republican House majority controlled by the disgraced former president would be a threat to the republic. Making a midterm election about the unfitness of the challengers rather than a referendum on the incumbents is a gift to the Democratic Party, which would love nothing more than to make McCarthy the poster boy for toadyism to a despot who tried to steal an election.

But for all her gusto and courage, Cheney might simply be a victim of wishful thinking that there is a Republican Party to be rescued. The chance that non-MAGA Republicans will constitute a majority of the House or Senate Republican membership is virtually nonexistent. The more realistic option — from the point of view of pro-democracy, pro-sanity Americans in the center right — may be to flee the party.

That’s where a new group of challengers to the GOP comes in. On Thursday, 150 former governors, members of Congress, Cabinet officials, senior administration officials, strategists and grass-roots leaders issued their own declaration of independence with an explicit threat to leave the party if the GOP does not abandon the MAGA mentality. In a document titled, “A Call to American Renewal,” the signatories reference Cheney’s ouster and write, “This ‘common-sense coalition’ seeks to catalyze the reform of the Republican Party and its recommitment to truth, founding ideals, and decency or, if unsuccessful, lay the foundation for an alternative.”

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The list of signatories include former governors Bill Weld of Massachusetts, Mark Sanford of South Carolina and Christine Todd Whitman of New Jersey; former representatives Charlie Dent of Pennsylvania, Barbara Comstock of Virginia, James Leach of Iowa, Tom Coleman of Missouri, Mickey Edwards of Oklahoma and Denver Riggleman of Virginia; former CIA director Michael Hayden; former homeland security secretary Michael Chertoff; former Republican Party chairman Michael Steele; and conservative voices such as George Conway and Mona Charen.

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Co-founder Miles Taylor, the former Homeland Security official fired under the last president and author of the anonymous op-ed in the New York Times, explained in an interview with MSNBC that this is the “'I’m not crazy’ coalition inside the Republican Party.” He added, “We’re gonna announce a group of Republicans and ex-Republicans that say we want rational, pragmatic governance,” but backed up with the threat to leave the party if the GOP doesn’t get its act together.

The group set out a list of principles, emphasizing democracy, constitutional order, truth, ethical government, conservation (“stewardship of America’s resources — natural, environmental and financial”), pluralism (rejecting the notion that America is defined by race, religion or birthplace) and rejection of “all forms of bigotry.”

Some of the stated principles hint at stances on current issues. In declaring they “oppose disenfranchisement of voters,” for example, the signatories position themselves as opponents of the voter suppression laws growing like weeds around the country. Other statements avoid specific positions, such as their support for “policies that further public safety, health, and defense as required for national sovereignty and prosperity.” Noteworthy is the absence of issues such as abortion or gay rights, suggesting the members of the group have agreed to disagree on some topics that are not central to its aim of restoring democracy.

This could be the platform of any GOP presidential nominee before 2016. Principles such as “rule of law” (which Cheney describes as the “most conservative of conservative principles”) were fundamental and uncontroversial within the party until the MAGA era began.

The declaration raises a host of questions:

  • Will any current elected leaders, besides state leaders, sign on to these principles?
  • When and how do they decide that time’s up for the GOP?
  • Do they run a slate of candidates, either as Republicans or under a yet-to-be-named new party’s banner?
  • Is this an effort to ideologically redefine the GOP as a center-right rather than far-right or nativist party?
  • If the GOP is hopeless, do these dissidents envision the new party akin to the moderate agenda of GOP governors such as Charlie Baker of Massachusetts?

These Republicans have not quite departed from the GOP, although they certainly are hovering around the exit door. While Cheney might seek the election of non-MAGA Republicans, this group surely understands that any GOP House majority would be controlled by the disgraced former president, and hence, a threat to the republic. If Republicans still nominate a MAGA-type presidential candidate in 2024, the dissidents with one foot out the door will need to field a third party or simply back President Biden (as they did in 2020), assuming he is the Democratic nominee. Ultimately, their goal is not restoration of the GOP, but marginalization of the GOP as currently constituted.

For now, Cheney and this group of dissident Republicans might embrace a common endeavor: stripping the bark off McCarthy and his enablers to make sure voters know the danger in handing over the House to MAGA cultists.

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