Although Rep. Liz Cheney (R–Wyo.) easily survived a February attempt to replace her as chair of the House Republican Conference after she voted to impeach Donald Trump, she is expected to lose her post on Wednesday as punishment for her continued criticism of the former president's fantasy that Joe Biden stole the 2020 election. House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R–Calif.), who supported Cheney in February, now favors replacing her with Rep. Elise Stefanik (R–N.Y.), who is willing to indulge Trump's fanciful belief that massive, orchestrated fraud deprived him of his rightful victory.
The comparison between Cheney and Stefanik speaks volumes about the extent to which the Republican Party has devolved into a personality cult that elevates Trump's capricious demands above any principles or policies it once claimed to support. Prior to Trump's post-election fantasy and the Capitol riot it inspired, Cheney was a more reliable ally than Stefanik, voting with the president 93 percent of the time, compared to Stefanik's score of 78 percent, according to FiveThirtyEight. Cheney is also notably more conservative, receiving a lifetime score of 80 percent from Heritage Action for America, compared to Stefanik's 48 percent. But what matters now is that Cheney thinks Trump's lies about the election need to be called out, while Stefanik is happy to reinforce them.
After the election, Cheney quickly lost patience with Trump's wild, unsubstantiated claims about rigged voting machines and falsified ballots. And when those claims motivated hundreds of Trump followers to attack the Capitol on January 6, she joined nine other Republicans in voting to impeach the president for triggering the riot by stoking a phony grievance for months, culminating in the inflammatory speech he delivered in Washington, D.C., that day.
"The President of the United States summoned this mob, assembled the mob, and lit the flame of this attack," Cheney said before the impeachment vote. "Everything that followed was his doing. None of this would have happened without the President. The President could have immediately and forcefully intervened to stop the violence. He did not. There has never been a greater betrayal by a President of the United States of his office and his oath to the Constitution."
Although he voted against impeachment, McCarthy agreed that Trump was at least partly responsible for the violence. "The president bears responsibility for Wednesday's attack on Congress by mob rioters," he said on the House floor a week after it was invaded by enraged Trump fans. "He should have immediately denounced the mob when he saw what was unfolding."
McCarthy, who unsuccessfully urged Trump to intervene as the riot was unfolding, later retreated from his criticism. "I don't believe he provoked it, if you listen to what he said at the rally," he told reporters on January 21. "I thought the president had some responsibility when it came to the response," he told Gray Television's Greta van Susteren a few days later. "If you listen to what the president said at the rally, he said, 'demonstrate peacefully.' And then I got a question later about whether did he incite them. I also think everybody across this country has some responsibility."
McCarthy nevertheless stood by Cheney during the attempted ouster in February, delivering a passionate speech in her defense around the same time that the Wyoming Republican Party was censuring her for supporting Trump's impeachment. But since then, McCarthy has been increasingly irked by Cheney's refusal to drop the subject, which he views as needlessly divisive and inconsistent with her leadership responsibilities.
"The Fraudulent Presidential Election of 2020 will be, from this day forth, known as THE BIG LIE!" Trump declared on May 3. Cheney fired back on Twitter: "The 2020 presidential election was not stolen. Anyone who claims it was is spreading THE BIG LIE, turning their back on the rule of law, and poisoning our democratic system."
In a Washington Post op-ed piece two days later, Cheney warned that "Trump is seeking to unravel critical elements of our constitutional structure that make democracy work—confidence in the result of elections and the rule of law." She noted that McCarthy has "changed his story" about responsibility for the Capitol riot. "The Republican Party is at a turning point, and Republicans must decide whether we are going to choose truth and fidelity to the Constitution," she said. "We Republicans need to stand for genuinely conservative principles, and steer away from the dangerous and anti-democratic Trump cult of personality."
From a libertarian perspective, Cheney's "genuinely conservative principles" are a mixed bag that includes not only fiscal restraint and opposition to "ridiculous wokeness" but also immigration restrictions, support for waterboarding (which, according to Cheney, does not qualify as torture), and a highly interventionist foreign policy. (Trump responded to Cheney's criticism by calling her a "warmonger," which is irrelevant in this context but nevertheless completely accurate.) And Cheney's op-ed piece was off-putting to the extent that it implicitly praised her own courage. "We must be brave enough to defend the basic principles that underpin and protect our freedom and our democratic process," she said. "I am committed to doing that, no matter what the short-term political consequences might be."
Still, Cheney, once viewed as a potential presidential contender, clearly is sacrificing her political interests for the sake of principles that are worth defending, including respect for reality, for the democratic process, for the rule of law, and for the peaceful transition of power. At a time when the GOP could and should be playing a useful role by resisting the Biden administration's reckless spending and extravagant ambitions, she is calling attention to the dangers of joining Trump in an alternate universe where he won re-election.
Meanwhile, Stefanik, Cheney's likely replacement as the third-ranking Republican in the House, has planted herself firmly in that fantasy world for crass political reasons. She supported the quixotic lawsuit that Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton filed in a vain attempt to overturn the presidential election results. Shortly before the Capitol riot, she claimed "more than 140,000 votes" in Fulton County, Georgia—more than one out of four ballots cast there—"came from underage, deceased, and otherwise unauthorized voters," an allegation for which there is no basis.
Even after the riot, Stefanik voted to reject Pennsylvania's electoral votes for Biden. And in an interview with former Trump strategist Stephen Bannon last week, she said she "fully" supports the Republican-led "audit" of ballots in Maricopa County, Arizona, where prior reviews reaffirmed the election results, saying "we want to be able to fix and strengthen our election security and election integrity."
Aside from her willingness to bend reality so that it conforms with Trump's self-flattering delusions, what does Stefanik have to offer as a Republican leader? "Elise Stefanik is NOT a good spokesperson for the House Republican Conference," the Club for Growth declared on Twitter last week. "She is a liberal with a 35% CFGF [Club for Growth Foundation] lifetime rating, 4th worst in the House GOP. House Republicans should find a conservative to lead messaging and win back the House Majority."
By contrast, Cheney's CFGF lifetime score, which is based on votes that reflect a commitment to fiscal discipline, low taxes, restrained government, and economic freedom, is 65 percent. It is clear that resisting the Democratic agenda counts for less in the GOP's priorities than kowtowing to one man's whims.
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