When a hardline conservative like Liz Cheney, daughter of Vice President Dick Cheney—who was known as Darth Vader—is too moderate for her party, something has gone radically wrong with the Republicans. Cheney is Republican royalty. She is the third-ranking leader in the House GOP caucus. She won her third term with 69 percent of the vote. And now she’s bucking the crazies in her party who think she’s a traitor because she voted to impeach President Trump.
“We can’t rebuild the party or the conservative movement on a foundation of lies,” Cheney reportedly said in an off-the-record interview Monday with former Republican House Speaker Paul Ryan at a conservative donors retreat, doubling down on her lonely fight for the truth in her party as GOP Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy is likely to call for a vote in the Republican caucus next week on whether to strip her of her leadership spot.
Cheney could have run for the Senate in Wyoming when there was an open seat last year. She would have won easily but instead ceded the opportunity to her predecessor in the House, Cynthia Loomis, who happily melded into the Tea Party crazy caucus. On its face, given the rapidly escalating feud with her party, it looks like Cheney made a bad bet, seeing her future in the House, perhaps as the GOP’s first female speaker should the Republicans regain the majority in 2022. But unless things change dramatically, Cheney could be on her way out of the House GOP leadership having crossed swords with McCarthy over his reverence for Trump and the party’s deliberate rewriting of what happened on Jan. 6.
Those who know Liz Cheney are not so quick to write her off. “She’s tough like the old man, she’s not going to back down,” a former Republican legislative aide told The Daily Beast, mapping out what she sees as the two likely outcomes to the current imbroglio. “Either they dump her and she goes off to write books and run a big conservative think tank where she can be the Republican Party in opposition to congressional Republicans—or she survives by a hair,” says this source, “and she’ll be in a weakened position, but she can hold her seat and ultimately come back strong.”
Either way, the Republicans are hellbent on self-destruction. Mitt Romney, the party’s former standard bearer, was booed and shouted down with cries of “traitor” and “communist” by 2100 attendees at the GOP convention in Utah on Saturday. Romney took it in stride. “You can boo all you like,” he said. “I’ve been a Republican all of my life. My dad was the governor of Michigan... and if you don’t recall, I was the Republican nominee for president in 2012.”
Romney remains Utah’s favorite son, with a tight grip on his Senate seat despite the rantings of the Trump base. Cheney too easily beat back a February challenge from the Freedom Caucus 165 to 41, but the drumbeat against her from the GOP’s most extreme faction is relentless. Trump calls Cheney a “big-shot warmonger” and says the party should get rid of her.
Internal leadership fights are hard to call, and another vote has not been scheduled. Either way, Cheney wins in the long term, says Elaine Kamarck, a senior fellow in the governance studies program at the Brookings Institution. “She has made a bet. She is the leader of the un-crazy Republican Party. She may have setbacks, maybe she’ll lose her leadership position, maybe she’ll lose her House seat. But at some point, the Republican Party comes out of its fog, and she will be there.”
In other words, instead of losing a principled leader which Cheney has demonstrated she is, the GOP could end up boosting her. “This is the kind of courage voters love,” says Kamarck. “She’s absolutely her own person.” At age 54, Cheney has many years in front of her. Political movements are about big ideas, and you can’t build a movement around an election that was stolen when it wasn’t, says Kamarck.
The Republican Party isn’t liberals and conservatives anymore. It’s the far right and then the crazies. There’s a minute number of people like Cheney and Romney who are focused on policy and are ideologically predisposed to support consistent GOP ideals like limited government, lower taxes, personal responsibility, balanced budgets and a robust foreign policy. The rest of the party wants to wage culture war, a losing bet if the economy remains strong and President Biden can deliver on his promise that government can make life better and reduce the inequality that is eating away at the core of our democracy.
At any point, Cheney could have done what many of her colleagues are doing, which is to rewrite history according to Trump. Cheney refuses to kowtow to anybody, and she’s fearless. “She’s making this decision with open eyes,” says Jack Pitney, professor of American politics at Claremont McKenna College. “She knows the cost of what she’s doing, that she may be ousted from the leadership and she may be facing a serious primary challenge. What makes it particularly courageous, she’s a Cheney and she knows she’ll never be a real favorite of liberal Democrats.”
For now, though, she is a barometer on how much the world has changed. She may have peaked too soon in 2014 when she challenged an incumbent Republican, Wyoming Sen. Mike Enzi, an act of disloyalty in the eyes of her elders. She withdrew from the race and settled for the House in the next cycle. Now that she’s fighting for her political life, there’s lots of second-guessing. Whatever happens, she is a truthteller in a party that has gone off the rails. Maybe she’s the Cheney who will restore a party beaten by loss and lies. There’s no one else vying for the job.