“That’s up to CPAC,” Cheney said, offering the kind of diplomatic response one would expect. But then she went on: “I’ve been clear on my views about President Trump and the extent to which, following Jan. 6, I don’t believe that he should be playing a role in the future of the party or the country.”
Cheney’s answer was the latest evidence that she’s not content to let her vote to impeach lie and move on. She has decided to press on with distancing herself and attempting to distance her party from Trump, despite a failed attempt to remove her from her leadership role. It was a significant break from McCarthy’s response, and one she didn’t have to emphasize.
And in a lot of ways, the split it demonstrated inside House GOP leadership epitomizes the party’s dilemma and the trio of choices that lie in front of it — as exemplified by its top three leaders.
Cheney is the one proposing the big break with Trump. Among the historic-but-still-relatively small number of Republicans to truly try to leave him behind, arguably nobody has risked so much. She comes from the most pro-Trump state in the 2020 election (Wyoming voted for Trump 70 percent to 27 percent) and one of the most pro-Trump congressional districts as well. She also could have bided her time as she sought to climb the ranks and waited for it all to pass one day, but she has chosen a far different course and clearly isn’t backing down.
McCarthy presents a more middle-ground approach (to the extent that exists in the modern GOP). While saying Trump should speak this weekend, he often faded into the background during Trump’s challenge to the 2020 election results, and he has rather clearly just been trying to hold on to control of his party.
The minority leader is hardly known as a conservative ideologue, and he even said Trump bore “responsibility” shortly after the Jan. 6 Capitol riot. But he hasn’t gone nearly so far in condemning Trump as Cheney or even his Senate counterpart, Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.). He also joined his vote against Trump’s impeachment with a vote to support Trump’s far-flung challenge to Congress accepting the election results (albeit while claiming his name was initially, inexplicably, left off the list of more than 100 House Republicans).
The final member of the triumvirate is the No. 2 GOP House leader, Minority Whip Steve Scalise (La.). This weekend, Scalise appeared on the Sunday shows and made big news by straining to avoid saying President Biden actually won the election, fair and square. He said Biden’s win was legitimate because that’s what the electoral college decided, but he also pointed to alleged problems with how states conducted their elections — allegations which courts have repeatedly rejected to hear. He also avoided saying Trump bore any blame for the Jan. 6 Capitol riot, as McCarthy has.
Scalise’s demonstration served to lend legitimacy to Republican efforts in states across the country to curtail voting rights, despite the lack of actual evidence of massive fraud, as The Post’s Philip Bump noted.
But others saw another potential motivation for Scalise: Staking out the most pro-Trump position among members of House GOP leadership. A huge majority of the House GOP and other GOP officials including attorneys general, after all, supported the efforts to overturn or at least question the election results. To the extent the party stays with Trump, Scalise seems to be aligning more with that effort than McCarthy.
“This has a lot more to do [with] House GOP caucus dynamics than meets the (tv) eye,” said the New York Times’s Jonathan Martin.
Martin has a very good point. And it’s worth emphasizing that, the last time Republicans were electing a new speaker, in 2015, McCarthy — who would be the obvious choice the next time around — was forced to withdraw. He didn’t appear to have the votes, in large part thanks to the tea party-aligned House Freedom Caucus. Eventually, Paul Ryan was chosen by a riven GOP caucus.
Midterm elections are generally kind to the party opposite the president, and the House is very closely divided — as close as it has been in two decades — with just five seats needed to flip the GOP to a majority in the 2022 election. The party also stands to benefit from its superior control of the redistricting process. In other words, we could soon confront a situation in which Republicans need to again select a House speaker.
To the extent Scalise has eyes on leapfrogging to that post — and he has in the past been deferential to McCarthy — he would be banking on the distinct possibility that McCarthy might again be viewed as too squishy by the party’s conservative flank. Whether that matters in two years, it’s obvious that, at least right now, the House GOP caucus is erring much more in Trump’s direction than against him.
Cheney, meanwhile, has charted a much different course than either of them and has stuck by it. It’s difficult to see that paying dividends in the near term, and it would be pretty shocking if that’s her calculus, but who knows about the long term?
And regardless of all those potential political calculations, for the speakership or otherwise, their leaders are not exactly presenting a distinct path forward for the party. Instead, they’re providing a bunch of very distinct choices.