It’s interesting to watch the Republican party’s struggle to find itself. I expect by now, that Liz Cheney – daughter of a former GOP vice president and fierce conservative with a nearly flawless record of voting on conservative issues – will be out and House Republicans will have seated a new conference chairwoman. Interestingly, Cheney’s likely replacement, Elise Stefanik – formerly regarded as a “liberal” Republican from New York – has only a fraction of the conservative cred of the Wyoming firebrand she’ll replace.
Stefanik, for example, opposed the Trump tax cuts. FreedomWorks and Club for Growth both rated Stefanik’s voting record in the mid-30% range. She doesn’t crack 50% with Heritage Action or the American Conservative Union.
Yet, Cheney’s record was only “nearly flawless,” and as the saying goes, close only counts in horseshoes and hand grenades. Cheney’s few inconsistent votes with Trump were ones that mattered...to him. After the Jan. 6 attack, she voted for impeachment and certification. Moreover, she was vocal in her refusal to buy in to Trump’s election theft fantasies, and her belief that they led to the riot. Despite her deep conservative bona fides, this was enough to draw a direct call for her head from the man in Mar-a-Lago.
Stefanik decided on a total makeover. After the midterms, she hoisted a decidedly different flag and looked to see who saluted. She vociferously defended Trump during Impeachment I, and guess what? Thirteen million dollars in campaign contributions is what. The bet paid off handsomely, but she really didn’t have a lot of downside. If Trump had gone down in Ukrainian flames, she almost certainly would have been forgiven by her New York constituents.
Like Stefanik, McCarthy, Scalise and most of the other GOP brass got where they are by playing a similar game: look for a chance to get a little bit ahead of where you think Trump’s base is headed, and try to get there first. If you’re right, this looks like leadership. If you’re wrong, you may be at some risk, but hopefully, you’ve picked a position from which retreat is possible. It’s like a lion tamer who sticks his head in the lion’s mouth, but wears a metal collar, just in case. If it turns out it was a bad time to stick your head in the lion’s mouth, it might not be pleasant, but perhaps it’s survivable.
Take McCarthy. After Jan. 6, he laid the blame for the mob’s attack at Trump’s feet. That, it turns out, was a miscalculation requiring a pilgrimage to Florida and innumerable hail Donalds to keep the lion from biting.
Quite reasonably believing their own eyes and ears, the events of Jan. 6 led others to test the water to see if the base was at all offended by his behavior. McConnell did it in the Senate, as did a few other House members. But like McCarthy, their criticisms of Trump were less about what they believed than about judging the direction of partisan winds after an unprecedented national spectacle. Before they’re loyal, these people are mercenary, and that’s why it occurred to them that inciting a terrible riot at the Capitol might be the thing that finally caused Trump’s support to erode. And, knowing that opportunity awaits if one is on the vanguard of a such an event, each carefully put his or her head in the lion’s mouth, only to find the base as forgiving as ever. Perhaps a little surprised, each tried to move before the lion bit down. Most did, but some (Nikki Haley comes to mind), may have joined the ranks of the politically headless.
Contrast that to what Liz Cheney did. Interestingly, few of her colleagues are saying she’s wrong to oppose Trump’s big lie, only that she should keep quiet about it. After several sessions with the lion, the orthodox view has evolved that the less said about Jan. 6, the better. But Cheney’s not playing that game. She’s dealing in beliefs, not testing out positions.
What she’s doing is actually leading, not pretending to lead by anticipating where her constituents are headed anyway.
If she’s wrong, there’s no going back and she’ll be out. But laying it all on the line is what real leaders do.