Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.) will soon cease to be the third-ranking House Republican, if House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) gets his way. In a Fox News appearance Tuesday, McCarthy said he’s “heard from members concerned about her ability to carry out the job as conference chair, to carry out the message.” A vote to remove Cheney from House leadership is increasingly likely, and it might succeed.
McCarthy claims this isn’t “about how she voted on impeachment,” a denial I’d guess convinces maybe three to five Americans, tops. We all know this is entirely about how she voted on impeachment, which is to say: entirely about former President Donald Trump. Cheney was one of just 10 House Republicans to vote to impeach Trump in January, and she continues to brand his allegations of election theft “the big lie.” She’s been censured by her state GOP for her stance, and her leadership spot has already been put to a House vote once this year.
The curious thing about McCarthy’s decision to try again to oust Cheney is what it says about his expectations for the next few years: This only makes sense if he anticipates a Trump comeback in 2024. And if McCarthy sincerely anticipates a comeback, there’s a good chance the rest of the Republican establishment does too, and therefore that other Republicans will similarly stay in formation as Trumpian foot soldiers.
That’s a risky strategy for a minority party seeking to regain power. It puts all the GOP’s eggs in one polarizing, erratic, unpopular basket. They might well break.
A 2024 campaign is a possibility Trump himself toys with regularly. He left the White House promising to “see you soon,” and he said last month he’s “looking at [another presidential run] very seriously, beyond seriously.” And why wouldn’t he? Trump is living a rather pathetic post-presidency in Florida. He was excised from headlines by his loss of access to major social media platforms (for now, at least), and the national press has largely moved on. The theory that Trump is “really thinking of running again in 2024 just to get back” on television, recently posited to CNN by an unnamed “person close to Trump,” is amply plausible.
It certainly seems to be what McCarthy foresees. Why else would this public demonstration of fealty be necessary? Why else would he enforce party discipline this way?
McCarthy said on Fox his focus is unified GOP messaging on policy, especially immigration, the economy, and the COVID-19 pandemic (specifically, reopening schools). But Cheney is hardly out of line with Trump-era GOP orthodoxy on these issues. She recently managed to combine attacks on the Biden administration over those exact three topics. When Trump was in office, she voted in line with his preferences 93 percent of the time, barely less than McCarthy himself. Cheney is doing just fine “carry[ing] out the message.” This isn’t about policy. It’s about Trump. McCarthy apparently thinks Trump is coming back, and he wants to be well-positioned for the glorious return.
Let’s suppose that view is typical of Republican leadership, Cheney obviously excluded. Let’s further suppose the GOP spends the next three years preparing for Trump’s political revival. If they’re correct and his campaign goes well, the gamble pays off. But let’s instead consider the very real possibility that it flops.
Maybe Trump doesn’t run after all, and alternative Republican contenders must scramble to adapt a party machine built for a purpose that no longer exists. Or maybe he does run (unopposed in the primary, naturally) but bombs in the general election. Maybe he suffers another ordinary, narrow loss like 2020, or maybe he wipes out like Walter Mondale (D) challenging then-President Ronald Reagan in 1984.
Whatever the scenario, planning for a comeback win which never materializes could be catastrophic for the Republican Party. It might finally precipitate the crackup theorized since Trump secured the presidential nomination in 2016. A split along pro- and anti-Trump lines, presently laughable, might become imaginable if the anti-Trump wing swelled following a crushing loss. It’s very unlikely, if only because no one wants to abandon the party fundraising infrastructure. Still, major American political parties have died before. It’s how we got the GOP: The Whig Party collapsed in the mid-1850s, and the Republicans rapidly arose to take its place as the Democrats’ main opponent.
Less dramatic consequences than party demise are possible, too. A severely mistaken strategy for 2024 could prevent McCarthy’s fulfillment of his pledge to regain the House for Republicans in the 2022 midterms. Right now, that’s a feasible goal: The president’s party often loses congressional seats in midterm elections, and House Republicans outperformed forecasts and shrank the Democratic majority in 2020. The House GOP is on the upswing, but McCarthy is tying it to a rejected ex-president who lost his vice grip on Americans’ attention.
A more strategic course than punishing intra-party critics like Cheney might be taking a big-tent approach at least through the next election. End the personality cult. Let some diversity of opinion flourish in GOP. See what sticks — what Americans like better than President Biden (because it obviously isn’t Trump, not beyond his base, anyway) — then recalibrate accordingly for 2024.