Liz Cheney Lays Down Her Marker
Spared defenestration from House leadership, the anti-Trump neoconservative has made clear she wants a Republican Party civil war.
“These ideas are just as dangerous today as they were in 1940,” Rep. Liz Cheney told the Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation and Institute this week, “when isolationists launched the America First movement to appease Hitler.”
It wasn’t subtle.
The most famous Republican in the country to vote to impeach Donald Trump last month all but explicitly linked “America First,” the foreign policy program favored by the former president (and until recently, Cheney’s own party), with the ancestor by the same name. That is, the now-controversial but once reasonably popular “America First” movement that questioned U.S. entry into World War II before the Pearl Harbor attacks. Conventionally hawkish Republicans have been lampooned by critics for incessantly seeing fresh “Munich moments” behind every corner. On that score, Cheney did not disappoint.
She played the hits.
“Weakness is provocative,” Cheney told the forum’s chair, Roger Zakheim. America must be clear-eyed in accepting its exceptionalism, she argued, and implicitly siding with Democratic characterizations of the Trump years, Cheney stuck the knife in further, saying the GOP must not “become the party of white supremacy.”
Cheney is a top member of House Republican leadership, having retained her post following censure by her hometown Republican Party and a failed backbench effort to remove her in recent weeks. On Wednesday, Kevin McCarthy, the House minority leader, told reporters emphatically, “yes,” it is appropriate for Trump to speak at the Conservative Political Action Committee (CPAC) this weekend in Orlando. Cheney, alongside McCarthy, said equally as emphatically: “I don’t believe that he should be playing a role in the future of the party or the country.” Channeling the anxiety in the high command over the party’s potentially riven future, McCarthy said: “On that high note, thank you very much.”
Cheney’s continued public fusillades against both Trump and Trumpism are a problem for a party licking its chops to get back into power as quickly as possible. Sen. Rick Scott, the chair of the party’s main Senate campaign arm, authored a memorandum this week addressed to “Republican voters, activists, leaders and donors” saying in the language of the moment,”the Republican civil war has been canceled.”
Scott, who harbors 2024 presidential ambitions, wrote: “This is real life folks. If they can cancel the President of the United States, they will have no problem cancelling you and me….Today, we must show our Democrat adversaries that, as Mark Twain would say, reports of the death of the Republican coalition and the American Dream are wildly exaggerated. The truth is the exact opposite. The table is set for us.” But it remains to be seen how sharp the knives are on that table.
The divide in the Republican Party is perhaps best understood as four-part.
First, there are those loyal (enough) to the former president who emphasize a more classically Reaganite legacy—low taxes and the like. This includes former White House officials such as Larry Kudlow, who has returned to television on Fox News, and Brooke Rollins, a veteran of the Koch network who has founded a new think tank. Rollins is mulling a future political run in Texas.
Second, there are those loyal to the president who proclaim a thirst for the comeback—that is, that Trump should run in 2024 and seek a rematch with Biden, or whichever successor. Figures who have favored this course in recent weeks include Trump-favorite Rep. Matt Gaetz and former White House chief strategist Stephen K. Bannon.
Third, there are those (officially, at least) unashamed of the Trump years, but who would also potentially favor a “Trumpism without Trump.” This faction is underrepresented in frontline politics, and perhaps over-represented in intellectual circles.
Former Office of Management and Budget director Russ Vought has started a new policy shop in recent days seeking to preserve the policy gains, as he sees them, of the Trump years. Other groups have signed onto pro-antitrust and anti-Big Tech statements, in a swipe at the party’s more market-deferent old guard.
Figures such as Tucker Carlson of Fox and potential Ohio Senate candidate J.D. Vance have charted perhaps more independent courses, but are at times seemingly borne back ceaselessly to Trump the man. Take Vance’s recent lamentation of the former president’s deplatforming. Add to that the cold reality that suspicions around voter fraud are now plainly in the party’s mainstream. Trump’s address this weekend in Florida for CPAC, potentially officially declaring a political future, is seen by this group as of preeminent importance.
But fourth and finally, there are those who would like to ignore Trump’s plans—their own plans, plainly, are expungement and restoration. Both Cheney and the Reagan Institute’s Zakheim are progeny of an ousted party elite. Cheney is the daughter, of course, of the former vice president. And Zakheim is the son of the former Pentagon comptroller, Dov Zakheim, who urged a tactical vote for Joe Biden last year.
Introducing her, the younger Zakheim openly flattered the Wyoming representative, comparing her to Margaret Thatcher. “If these past few months have proven anything,” Zakheim said. “It’s that Congresswoman Cheney certainly has the resolve, fortitude and conviction of 21st-century Iron Lady.”
Cheney was once spoken about as future Speaker, but mounting such a bid is now unimaginable, in the current landscape of the House. Only time will tell if political liability will simply make her aim higher—that is, if Cheney is imbued with the ambition to seek the presidency that eluded her father.