Analysis by Stephen Collinson, CNN
Updated: Thu, 06 May 2021 15:46:19 GMT
The unmistakable message of Liz Cheney's downfall is that Donald Trump will be a dominant figure in the Republican Party -- and by extension American life -- most likely for years to come.
The Wyoming Republican congresswoman is about to lose her No. 3 House leadership post after a lonely defense of the truth that last year's election was not stolen and that Trump incited a riot in the US Capitol to try to overthrow it.
Those facts are unpalatable for most of Cheney's House Republican colleagues, who have ambitions to rise in a party controlled by the former President despite his two impeachments, botched reelection bid, failure to properly handle the pandemic and insurrectionist exit from power.
Cheney nevertheless warned her party in a valedictory op-ed in The Washington Post on Wednesday that the GOP was at a "turning point" at which the party must decide whether to "choose truth and fidelity to the Constitution" or bow down to Trump.
"We Republicans need to stand for genuinely conservative principles, and steer away from the dangerous and anti-democratic Trump cult of personality," Cheney wrote. "We believe in the rule of law, in limited government, in a strong national defense, and in prosperity and opportunity brought by low taxes and fiscally conservative policies."
Her article made an implicit case that the Republican Party may be irrevocably damaging itself in the eyes of the American public by ignoring Trump's offenses against the basic democratic principles that underpin the country.
But the frightening reality for traditional conservatives who support Cheney's stand against Trump is that she appears to be defending a vision of the GOP that no longer exists.
While low taxes and fiscal prudence still appeal to some conservatives, ideological purity has long since receded as the organizing principle of the party in favor of personal tributes to Trump and appeals to his anti-establishment base.
Club for Growth, a conservative organization focused on economic issues, came out Thursday against Rep. Elise Stefanik, who Trump and some in GOP leadership have endorsed to replace Cheney, saying saying the New York moderate-turned-MAGA congresswoman is "NOT a good spokesperson" for the conference.
"She is a liberal with a 35% CFGF lifetime rating, 4th worst in the House GOP. House Republicans should find a conservative to lead messaging and win back the House Majority," the group tweeted.
For Trump backers, "strong national defense" is a code word for long, bloody wars in the Middle East started by President George W. Bush and the Wyoming lawmaker's father, ex-Vice President Dick Cheney.
Liz Cheney's version of the GOP has already been superseded by a populist, autocratic, anti-free-trade and deficit-oblivious vehicle for Trump's personal gratification, having been reshaped and now dominated by the former President.
That means that the likes of Cheney, Sen. Mitt Romney of Utah and Rep. Adam Kinzinger of Illinois likely face years in the wilderness until political winds shift -- all because they put principle over personal loyalty to the ex-President.
Trump defies predictions he would fade after defeat
Trump's hold on the GOP -- which is, if anything, even more powerful, at least in the House, than when he was in office -- is one of the most remarkable achievements in modern politics.
Trump claimed the White House and kept the country in an exhausting whirl of controversy and chaos through ubiquity -- mostly on social media. But his orchestration of Cheney's exit, on a day when Facebook's oversight board prolonged his suspension from the platform, showed that his power in the GOP is so broad that he may not need to tweet or post to work his will. His continued primacy is proof of the unshakable bond with millions of voters who embraced his tirades against political correctness, immigration and cultural warfare, and those voters now see his lies about election cheating as an article of faith.
The decision by House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy to anchor his bid to reclaim the House in midterm elections in 2022 on the former President means Trump will be a dominant, and likely vocal, campaign trail presence.
If Republicans fail to trigger the first-term curse of presidents and erase the narrow Democratic House majority, the move will be seen as a blunder. But the portents of history and the fact that success in midterm elections relies on agitated base voters mean that McCarthy, from a purely electoral sense, may be adopting the most logical political strategy open to him by embracing Trump.
Barring a wipeout by the GOP -- or a clear sign that the ex-President's visibility cost the party a chance to win back the Senate -- Trump would then appear to be in prime position to launch a bid for the 2024 Republican nomination or to play a kingmaker role for a favored candidate.
His oversized presence has already caused some uncomfortable positioning for other possible 2024 contenders, many of whom are falling over themselves to praise the former President with an eye on his voters. Former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie has started to praise Trump's presidency after criticizing his friend's behavior after the election. Sen. Josh Hawley of Missouri is refusing to apologize for raising his fist in tribute to Trump crowds on Capitol Hill before the insurrection. And former US Ambassador to the United Nations and South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley -- seen by many Republicans as a possible force for post-Trump renewal and a return to a more traditional GOP -- has said she won't run in 2024 if her old boss does.
That means that given luck, good health and presuming no legal problems or financial woes emerge to scupper any comeback hopes, the former President will be at minimum a major player in GOP politics until at least 2024.
That dominance is the reason why winning Trump's approval has become the most important task of ambitious Republicans and why holdouts like Cheney figure to spend years on the sidelines before they get another taste of power.
By contrast, Stefanik, Cheney's likely replacement in House leadership, took the fast track -- morphing into a Trump defender and riding his endorsement, which swayed rank-and-file House Republicans to back her push for a plumb leadership post.
Biden apparently mystified by GOP turmoil
Trump's likely constant and increasing presence in US politics -- even if he doesn't get his social media accounts back -- means interesting calculations for the other top political leaders in town: Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and President Joe Biden.
While Trump may be already a favorite for the Republican nomination in 2024, the increasingly radical and authoritarian track down which he is leading his party might make it tough to win a rematch with the President in 2024.
Of course, there will be questions over whether Biden would contemplate a reelection race as an 80-something. But as long as Trump is around, Democrats will be able to raise the specter of a return of the lawlessness and abuses of power of his single term in the service of retaining moderate suburban voters.
Biden on Wednesday portrayed the GOP as in the grip of a churning, endless battle for its soul as he highlighted a pandemic restaurant rescue plan -- part of his effort to make his own presidency as successful as possible in order to block any possible path to a return to power for Trump.
"I don't understand the Republicans," the President said, when asked about the effort by Trump loyalists to eject Cheney -- who has been civil toward Biden, though pillorying his economic and social politics -- from the leadership.
The President's Senate sparring partner, McConnell also faces challenges. Trump's refusal to slip into a quiet retirement might help drive up GOP votes in House races. But in broader electorates in statewide contests, aggressively pro-Trump candidates could make it harder for the party to win tight Senate races.
The Kentucky Republican now seems set to chart a parallel course to the ex-President while seeking to halt Biden's massive and ambitious agenda.
"One hundred percent of my focus is on stopping this new administration," the minority leader said on Wednesday, mirroring a similar comment he once let slip about trying to make Barack Obama a one-term president.
McConnell harshly criticized Trump's role in the Capitol insurrection but declined to vote to convict him in an impeachment trial after he had left office. McConnell's positioning fell far short of Cheney's principled resistance but preserved him a much faster route to return to power even in a party that still contains the former President.
Cheney and her fellow Trump refuseniks, meanwhile, now have little option but to adopt the kind of political long game that McConnell has more often made his signature if they are to turn their party around.