Liz Cheney says she plans to lead the Republican Party away from Trumpism.
The question is, how?
To her defenders, the first and necessary step is to take a stand.
“You beat them by fighting them,” said Stuart Stevens, a disaffected Republican strategist who has advised several GOP presidential candidates. “It takes one woman of courage to show a body of predominantly men what cowards they are.”
That is the simplistic view, and it may very well be correct. Accommodation and hoping Trump would go away or self-destruct has proved to be a disastrous strategy. “The future will take care of itself,” then-Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., famously predicted a month before the Jan. 6 insurrection, when asked why he was not calling out Trump’s lies about the 2020 election.
There are many in the GOP, however, who think the savvier way for the party to rid itself of Trump is to let him fade into oblivion. They note that he’s been exiled from social media, his preferred venue for communicating with journalists and supporters, and must now rely on email to get his message out.
“How do you really put out a big fire? You starve it of oxygen,” said Terry Sullivan, who ran the 2016 presidential campaign of Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla.
“This is the paradigm our party is now in. You are either a Never Trumper or a [MAGA] person. We had drifted a little bit away from that, and [Cheney] forced us back into it,” Sullivan said in an interview.
That is the perspective of House Republicans who want to win the midterm elections in 2022. McConnell, while he has confronted Trump at times, has also largely tried to ignore the former president, and has largely refused to take the bait when Trump has attacked him.
Sullivan conceded that Cheney “would make the argument that this has been the strategy for six years and it's failed miserably.”
But Cheney — the Wyoming congresswoman who was stripped of her House leadership position by fellow Republicans on Wednesday — faces a major challenge in winning over a GOP grassroots that is now deeply distrustful of any information not filtered through right-wing media. She might have gained a platform by being martyred, but interviews on NBC’s “Today” show won’t change many minds among Republican primary voters.
Barbara Comstock, a Republican former congresswoman from Virginia who is a Cheney ally, said that even if political partisans on Fox News like Sean Hannity attack Cheney, the network’s more traditional journalists — like Bret Baier and Chris Wallace — “respect her, and her voice is going to be heard there.”
But Cheney’s second major challenge after media polarization is her message. She is in the spotlight now because of this current confrontation with Trump over his steady stream of lies about the 2020 election. But if her message going forward is all about Trump, that would likely lead many Republican voters to write her off.
“She can get a little bit of mileage out of this. But the challenge then is, how do you avoid becoming Jeff Flake?” said one Republican consultant with years of experience in presidential campaigns. Flake was a GOP senator from Arizona who was a critic of Trump but then retired in 2018.
Cheney has said she has no intention of giving up her seat. When asked by NBC’s Savannah Guthrie about Trump’s hopes of seeing her defeated in the 2022 midterm elections and replaced by another Republican, Cheney was defiant. “Bring it on,” she said. “If they think they’re going to come into Wyoming and make the argument that the people of Wyoming should vote for someone who is loyal to Donald Trump over someone who is loyal to the Constitution, I welcome that debate.”
And when asked by Guthrie whether she was considering a campaign for president in 2024, Cheney kept the door open.
"I think that it is the most important issue that we are facing right now as a country, and we're facing a huge array of issues, so he must not ever again be anywhere close to the Oval Office," Cheney said. "I'm going to do everything that I can, both to make sure that that never happens, but also to make sure that the Republican Party gets back to substance and policy."
Cheney’s decision to float a presidential run is, in fact, the opposite of the Flake approach. Rather than ceding the field, she is upping the stakes, and guaranteeing that she will continue to draw some measure of interest and attention. It’s an age-old lesson in politics that there’s no better way to stay in the conversation than dangling a possible bid for the White House. Just ask Trump, who continually teases a campaign for his old job.
“This guy's never going to decide not to run. He's just never going to file [candidacy papers at the filing deadline],” Sullivan said of Trump with a chuckle. “He's going to start rumors and say, 'I may see you tomorrow.’”
Sullivan said Republicans who want to run for president in 2024 and are “willing to put distance between themselves and Trump are going to have a huge advantage because they're going to be able to start running way earlier.”
But avoiding irrelevancy also means having a message that resonates with consumers of both mainstream news and conservative media — a really complicated task. Being a regular presence on CNN and MSNBC is not the same thing as being welcome to speak at Republican rallies and dinners across the country, which is necessary for any politician who hopes to move the needle in the party.
“This message will get stale even in traditional media pretty quick,” the GOP consultant said. Cheney will need “a fresh hook.”
“Staying in office would obviously help her. Winning a primary would help,” he said.
Comstock mentioned Cheney’s push for an independent commission to look into the Jan. 6 insurrection as one issue that could help her stay in the conversation.
“I think she's going to be an important voice on having the Jan. 6 commission, which I think is a very important thing for the country,” Comstock said.
Cheney made this a focus of her recent Washington Post op-ed, calling for Congress to support the Justice Department’s criminal investigation and for “a bipartisan review by a commission with subpoena power to seek and find facts.”
“It will describe for all Americans what happened. This is critical to defeat the misinformation and nonsense circulating in the press and on social media,” she said. And Cheney has rejected House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy’s calls to include investigations into Black Lives Matter and antifa in the commission’s work.
Cheney told Guthrie that a Jan. 6 commission with an “intense, narrow focus” on the events of that day and what led to it “threatens people in my party who may have been playing a role they should not have been playing.”
That’s an indication that Trump isn’t Cheney’s only Republican target. And should she fend off a primary challenge next year while attempting to fine-tune a message palatable to moderates and conservatives alike, she may very well remain a force to be reckoned with in the GOP.
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