And yet, she persisted. Despite knowing it imperiled her leadership role and potentially her seat in Congress in Trump’s second-best state in the 2020 election, she has pushed this issue to the fore thanks to her stature in House leadership.
A very logical question is: Why? And what’s the calculus?
Several Republicans before Cheney have decided to say the things their colleagues seemingly wanted to but wouldn’t. But more often than not, they quickly succumbed to reality by retiring, recognizing they had marginalized themselves too much. Others lost primaries or scaled back their criticisms to save their careers.
Cheney, though, has done no such thing, despite a seemingly bright future in the party. She’s just 54 years old, and after she rose to the GOP’s No. 3 position following only two years in the House, the easy play would have been to sit back, not rock the boat and build toward a promising leadership career. Cheney even bypassed running for an open Senate seat last year by citing what she could do for Wyoming as a top House Republican.
The idea that she, the daughter of a former member of GOP House leadership who became vice president, could one day become speaker was hardly far-fetched, even as she might have had to overcome or wait for the top two House Republicans — Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) and Scalise — who are about the same age.
The most logical answer is that this is truly a matter of principle — that Cheney indeed worries about the course of her party under Trump and that she wants to do something about it. That principle might not have weighed as heavily on her fellow Republicans over the past four years, despite most of them having significantly less to lose, but perhaps she’s just that concerned.
But even if that’s the aim, there are ways to massage the issue. Plenty of Republicans have done so to keep a seat at the table, perhaps rationalizing that forfeiting it would be counterproductive. What good is criticizing Trump and losing your job if you’ll just be replaced by a loyalist who won’t ask such difficult questions?
There’s an argument, though, that Cheney is uniquely positioned to emerge from it well — if not in the short term, in the long term.
One reason is her name and her brand. Like Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah), Cheney probably has more latitude with her voters, thanks to the history of Wyoming and the Cheneys. It might not be enough to save her seat, but she would almost definitely be dead in the water politically if she were almost any other House Republican — both in 2022 and moving forward.
Beyond that, Cheney seems to be placing a bet on the long term — the idea that, even if she’s excommunicated from House GOP leadership and loses her seat in Congress, she might eventually emerge better for it. The gamble is that the GOP will one day turn more significantly against Trumpism and that she would come out ahead.
And on that count, Cheney would have few if any equals. Again, her status as a Cheney and a well-respected conservative politician would make a comeback more viable. And among those who might be considered equals in criticizing Trump, she has significantly more of an upside and a potential future.
Romney, for instance, has already been a GOP presidential nominee and lost. He’s also 74 years old. Rep. Adam Kinzinger (R-Ill.) is perhaps the other House member most forcefully critical of Trump, but he’s got a tough path to power in a blue state. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has pushed for a post-Trump party, but he’s also 79.
About the most obvious alternative to Cheney if a post-Trump Republican Party emerges would seem to be Sen. Ben Sasse (R-Neb.), another very conservative member who is just 49. He has also increasingly distanced his brand from Trump and lodged similarly vocal and seemingly counterproductive criticisms. But unlike Cheney, he just won another six years in the Senate and probably will be around for a while.
Both have been mentioned as potential 2024 presidential contenders, with Cheney in particular declining to dismiss such an idea last week. It seems ridiculous at this point to think they would be viable, given where the party is now. But there’s something to be said for owning a lane in that campaign or future campaigns, whether for elective office or some different role. And for now, Cheney is doing more than anybody to own that lane.
Skepticism that the GOP will venture in such a direction — enough to make such a politician viable in the near future, at least — is valid. Even if only half the party remains onboard, that would make it difficult for the most vociferous Trump critic to win.
But for arguably the first time in the Trump era, we have someone who seems to be betting a potentially lengthy and promising political career on just that.