On the eve of Rep. Liz Cheney’s ouster as chairwoman of the House Republican Conference, some 100 Republicans, organized by the formerly anonymous anti-Trump hero Miles Taylor, threatened to desert the party. “This is us saying that a group of more than 100 prominent Republicans think that the situation has gotten so dire with the Republican Party that it is now time to seriously consider whether an alternative might be the only option,” Taylor told The New York Times.
“I think it will take massive losses for Republicans to understand that this is not the way forward,” said former GOP presidential candidate Carly Fiorina in an appearance on CNN earlier this month. “Liz Cheney is correct.”
Cheney herself gave an impassioned speech on the House floor hours before her removal as the third-ranking Republican in the chamber. “We must speak the truth,” she told her colleagues. “Our election was not stolen and America has not failed.”
Cheney and her allies are right in certain particulars: The party should not push false claims about the 2020 elections. While the country has been no stranger to controversial close finishes in presidential races since the 2000 Florida recount fiasco, former President Donald Trump has pushed his protests of the outcome well past any responsible point. The Jan. 6 Capitol riot is a stark reminder that this can be dangerous.
But Trump is no longer president. He is a man who issues statements to the media from his retirement home in Florida, no longer in possession even of a Twitter account much less the nuclear codes. Amid all the sound and fury, Joe Biden took office on schedule and has been the commander-in-chief for over 100 days.
There is a place for debate over Trump, who could be a candidate yet again in 2024. Cheney didn’t lose her job because Republicans won’t have this debate. Her role was specifically designed to lead the party in its public response to Biden’s governing agenda and to help it win the midterm elections next year, building on last year’s improbable gains in the House. Whatever you think of a political party, it has a right not to turn such a position over to someone who is, in her own way, just as committed to relitigating the events of 2020 as Trump and whose allies think the party needs to experience “massive losses” to learn its lesson.
Cheney’s removal is not a sign of the GOP’s deepening fealty to Trump. She was reaffirmed as conference chair shortly after being one of 10 House Republicans to vote for his unprecedented second impeachment, over the objections of the caucus’ most committed Trump defenders. The supporters she lost in the interim were Republicans who believed moving on from Trump means not talking about him constantly and attempting to deliver for GOP voters now, under a Democratic president.
Trump is himself a product of Republicans believing their leaders were more interested in having their concession speeches favorably covered by The New York Times than in governing according to their interests and values. In the absence of this perception, it is unthinkable that voters who had just given their presidential nomination to Mitt Romney and John McCain would hand it over to a frequently vulgar reality TV star from New York. But Trump’s critics in the party have never wanted to grapple with this political reality and, after losing to him in 2016, have stopped trying to reach normal Republicans almost entirely.
Instead they have redoubled their efforts to powerwash the party of all traces of Trump, even if it actually means burning the GOP to the ground. This may be emotionally satisfying, but it is not really how politics works. Despite our memories of Barry Goldwater heading to the White House during the darkest days of Watergate to tell Richard Nixon it was over, most Republicans stuck with Nixon until the bitter end. This includes most of the people who led the party afterward, as it won the White House and the Senate a mere six years later.
It took eight years to hear a Republican on a debate stage speak in especially critical terms about George W. Bush without mostly turning off the audience (that Republican was Trump). Bush left Republicans in even worse shape in terms of presidential election vote share and representation in Congress following his two terms than they were after Trump’s one. As with Nixon, most Republicans just quietly moved on.
New Republican leadership responsive to its voters’ concerns is ultimately the most likely way the party will turn the page on Trump, not Bush-Cheney-style regime change. That is the main reason Cheney saw herself on the wrong side of a form of regime change today.