Cheney versus the Freedom Caucus
Updated: Sep 10, 2020
On Tuesday morning, a routine meeting of the House Republican Conference took an unusual turn when several members and allies of the House Freedom Caucus, an organized conservative faction within the party, openly criticized Conference Chair Liz Cheney (R-WY). According to news accounts, unhappy Republicans argued that Cheney was too critical of President Trump, and some were angry that she had supported a primary challenge against one of their like-minded colleagues, Thomas Massie (R-KY). Matt Gaetz (R-FL), another Caucus ally, later tweeted that Cheney should resign from her leadership post.
In many ways, the event was hardly worth the attention it received in the press. For one thing, the complaints were hardly a surprise. Cheney has been one of the most high-profile Republicans to openly challenge the president, and many congressional Republicans support the president, at least publicly. The Freedom Caucus in particular made a name for itself by unabashedly challenging its own party’s leaders, and its members may be especially sensitive to leadership interference in election campaigns, given past history.
Cheney is also in little danger of losing her leadership position. The Freedom Caucus has roughly 35 members, less than one-fifth of the party. Even if they all wanted Cheney to go, there are only enough legislators in the group to offer an official resolution that she resign, not enough to vote her out (even if one includes sympathetic non-members like Gaetz and Massie). Besides, Cheney appears to have broad support in the party, including the endorsement of Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA), and lawmakers likely realize that the optics of removing the House GOP’s only woman leader would be terrible.
The kerfuffle was important, however, insofar as it reflected an important decision the Freedom Caucus made not long after the 2016 election: to tie itself closely to the Trump White House.
Even before Trump was elected, the Freedom Caucus understood that building alliances with politically powerful individuals could be beneficial. As I explain in my book about the Caucus, during its first few years of existence the group occasionally found success by joining forces with like-minded leaders or committee chairs. For instance, in 2015 it partnered with Jeb Hensarling (R-TX), chairman of the House Financial Services Committee, to delay reauthorization of the Export-Import Bank for months.
During the 2016 Republican presidential primaries, almost none of the Caucus’s members initially endorsed Trump, and his election forced a difficult choice on the group: should it stick to its conservative small-government principles, ignoring the will of voters (many of whom had cast ballots for Trump in the primaries), or should it be loyal to a same-party president with questionable ideological credentials? After some brief but heated conflicts with the White House over repealing the Affordable Care Act, the Caucus chose to follow the latter path.
Though the Freedom Caucus lost some members in the process, that decision appeared to pay off. Two former Caucus lawmakers, Mick Mulvaney (R-SC) and Mark Meadows (R-NC), have served as Trump’s chief of staff, and the group has developed other valuable ties to the White House over the years. Trump has lauded the group in the press, supported the reelection of its members who demonstrated loyalty to him, and granted the group considerable access.
Leaving aside Cheney’s (abandoned) support for Massie’s challenger—and that Trump himself wanted Massie to lose his primary—the Caucus’ decision to wed itself closely to the presidential wing of the Republican Party is a major reason for yesterday’s intraparty blow-up. Both the current Caucus chair (Andy Biggs of Arizona) and a former chair (Jim Jordan of Ohio) explicitly mentioned Cheney’s criticisms of Trump as the reason for their discontent. Chip Roy (R-TX) grumbled about Cheney’s support for Dr. Anthony Fauci, who has often been the subject of White House ire. Gaetz’s tweet included the hashtag “#MAGA,” and while the president was silent on the matter, his son Donald Trump Jr. retweeted Gaetz’s tweet, along with some supportive commentary.
Presidential loyalty may explain what happened in the Republican Conference, but it is unclear what strategic value was gained by lambasting Cheney. The president’s low approval ratings suggest that his electoral coattails will be short in November, and most Freedom Caucus members are in safe GOP districts anyway. (Chip Roy is a notable exception.) Few outside the Beltway even know who the Republican Conference Chair is or what her responsibilities are.
If anything, the skirmish may have done more to help Cheney than hurt her. Lawmakers seldom take kindly to White House interference in the selection of party leaders, and as Cheney pointedly noted, “Donald Trump Jr. Is not a member of the House Republican Conference.” Indeed, some have speculated that Cheney is positioning herself for a move up the leadership ladder, calculating that Trump’s days are numbered.
Should that be the case, yesterday’s melee will likely be forgotten, and the Freedom Caucus will be back where it was four years ago--looking for new allies while trying to retain its commitment to ideological principles. How well the group meets that challenge will go a long way in determining the future of the Freedom Caucus.