Analysis by Stephen Collinson, CNN
Updated: Thu, 04 Feb 2021 07:03:28 GMT
Rep. Liz Cheney survived to fight another battle but on a raucous and defining day, the appeasement of Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene by House Republicans sent their party lurching further down the road to extremism.
The moral crisis in the GOP after Donald Trump's exit from Washington was epitomized by a showdown that saw Cheney, a lifelong ideological conservative, forced to fight off a challenge to her leadership post after she voted to impeach a President who sparked a violent coup attempt.
At the same time, Greene, a belligerent conspiracy theorist who thinks the GOP's problem is that it lost the presidential election too gracefully, got a pass from colleagues despite promoting a sick stew of QAnon lies and fantasies.
The struggle for the future direction of the party exploded in a manic meeting of the House Republican Conference that ended when Cheney prevailed comfortably in a secret ballot -- after she refused to apologize to angry acolytes of the ex-President after choosing the Constitution over Trump.
Greene had earlier learned that House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy would not strip her committee assignments -- a day after she was called into his office over her past extreme views and offensive social media posts. The Democratic-led House is however expected to act where McCarthy failed in a floor vote on Thursday.
The fact that Cheney has faced more criticism from her colleagues than Greene in recent days reflects how the GOP's traditional values are under siege and the vast power that extremists and conspiracy theories welcomed into the party by Trump are accumulating.
For weeks, and especially following the insurrection incited by Trump on January 6, the Republican Party has been locked in a prolonged duel between those swearing loyalty to their leader in exile, and others who want to move on from his anti-democratic tenure.
But Wednesday's leadership punt on Greene, a first term member from Georgia, made this clear: Scared of repudiating Trump's base, the House GOP is racing at top speed towards its extremist fringe to validate millions of Americans living in an alternative reality even if Cheney's survival suggests that privately many GOP members don't believe the election was stolen.
A 9/11 truther, who touted anti-Semitic conspiracies and expressed support for assassinations of Democratic leaders, Greene is no longer the outlier in her party across America's vast heartland -- Cheney is.
Cheney, who, until the Trump insurrection, was a reliable vote for the President save on some foreign policy issues, made a powerful statement by winning in a 145 to 61 vote to keep her leadership post. Her victory was a sign that in private at least, there are some in the House Republican Party who are willing to stand up to extremism -- even if many lack the courage to do so in public. Her triumph will encourage orthodox Washington conservatives -- including many in the Senate who supported her, to think the fight for the future direction of the party is not hopeless.
But Cheney still faces the very real prospect of a primary challenge in her fervently pro-Trump state of Wyoming.
And while the lawmakers did not have to declare to their colleagues how they voted on Cheney's retention of the House Conference Chair job, it would not be surprising to see some of the most enthusiastic Trump supporters in the caucus publicly reveal their votes against her.
"This is clearly a moment to define where the party is going and the party is choosing a Hell of a path here," Mary Katharine Ham, a prominent conservative writer and CNN political commentator, told CNN's Anderson Cooper before Cheney's vote total was announced.
Greene said in the meeting that her past social media posts did not represent who she was. But her sense of being impervious to the customs of her fast-shifting party shone through a defiant interview with the Washington Examiner that published as Wednesday's meeting went on.
"Kevin McCarthy and all these leaders, the leadership, and everyone is proving that they are all talk and not about action, and they're just all about doing business as usual in Washington," Greene said.
In many ways, Wednesday's meeting accelerated the direction the party has been heading at least since many parts of its traditional base became disillusioned with the establishment following years of war and the 2008 financial crisis. Trump's weaponizing of the issue of race and swift social change after Barack Obama's presidency continued the conspiratorial trend while his seditious post-election behavior removed the last restraints to an all-out embrace of extremism.
This will all have profound consequences for the country. There have always been wide, and proper, ideological differences between Democrats and Republicans. They are, if anything, widening.
But this is not a new front in the perennial duel over health care or taxes. One of America's great parties, by elevating unhinged radicals such as Greene, and by threatening those like Cheney who accept the truth of Biden's win last year, is implicitly rejecting the sacred values of the American political system itself and its essential underpinning of objective truth and fact.
Those who declared a final victory for democracy when Trump left town after his attempt to steal President Joe Biden's victory may have spoken too soon.
Wednesday's turmoil also underscored how McCarthy has capitulated to the extreme forces within his caucus and in the country. A week after his pilgrimage to make up with Trump after his tepid criticism of his role inciting the Capitol insurrection, the leader refused to strip Greene of her committee posts.
The spectacle of the leader being led around by a congresswoman who has been in Washington for four weeks either showed great political weakness or cynical calculation. He will leave it to House Democrats to rebuke Greene. While that makes McCarthy look feckless, it also suggests he concluded that it is better for him politically for Democrats to punish a Make America Great Again hero than for his caucus to alienate their base.
Yet his failure to deal with the Greene issue himself means that many of his members -- especially those from more vulnerable districts -- now face a choice between voting in the full House to punish a Trump supporter or to open themselves to accusations they are endorsing her crazed rhetoric.
McCarthy condemned Greene's social media activity in a statement and accused Democrats of not meeting him half way on finding a solution that would have reallocated Greene's committee posts. (Critics had complained she was placed on an education committee, following her claims that several school massacres were "false flag operations.")
But he also stated that he took Greene at her word that she now recognized that her conduct as a member of Congress needed to be of a higher standard than when she was a private citizen.
"The voters decided that she can come and serve," McCarthy said after the meeting, adding that Greene had denounced her own social media activity.
In her comments to the Examiner, in which she again alluded to lies that Trump won the election and insulted Senate Minority leader Mitch McConnell, Greene showed she has no incentive to reform her behavior.
"Now, we have Joe Biden in the White House and Nancy Pelosi at 80 million years old as speaker, and we've got a Senate that we don't control anymore, with, you know, Mr. Big Turtle in charge up there just, just losing gracefully, losing gracefully," Greene said in the interview.
GOP senators set to avoid moral choice
Local activists and other outliers in Washington such as Illinois Rep. Adam Kinzinger might argue that all is not lost for the GOP and that the reckoning will take many months, as memories fade of the Trump presidency.
But many of those state Republican officials who stood firm in the face of the ex-President's attempt to overturn election results are facing the similar kind of assaults and likely primary challenges as Cheney and the other nine House Republicans who voted to impeach Trump.
And Republican senators, such as McConnell, who called Greene a "cancer," and others who condemned her remarks would insist that they are standing up for the institutional values of the party that saved the world for democracy by winning the Cold War against communism.
Yet in the next few weeks, the vast majority of GOP senators are expected to vote to acquit Trump in his Senate impeachment trial. Most will take refuge in a questionable constitutional conceit that the trial is moot since Trump is an ex-President.
This will spare them having to wrestle with the moral choice of what to do with a commander in chief who sent his supporters on a deadly march on another branch of government. Their motivation is the same as those who are appeasing Greene -- a desire to avoid antagonizing the party base and to avoid primary challenges in order to retain their hold on power.