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Why Republicans are Ousting Liz Cheney

(Associated Press photo)

by Casey Burgat

After months of publicly rebuking former President Trump’s unfounded claims of a rigged election and condemning his role in inciting the January 6th Capitol insurrection, Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.) is about to be ousted from her post as the Republican Conference Chair, the third highest ranking GOP position in the House. Rumors have already zeroed in on her potential replacement—Rep. Elise Stefanik (R-N.Y.)—the clearest sign yet that House Republicans are champing at the bit to cast Cheney aside.

It’s not often we see such public spats between members of the same party, let alone sniping between leaders of the same party. That’s not to say there aren't intense intra-party disagreements on policies and personalities—there are plenty. But political parties work hard to keep their divisions behind closed doors and out of the public eye. They do so in an effort to appear united, to help present a singular party message to voters that contrasts sharply with the opposing party. Internal dissent aired publicly muddies that distinction. It clouds voters’ perspectives of what the party stands for, which is particularly unwelcome heading into an election year where regaining the majority is well within reach.

Which makes the Cheney vs. House GOP battle all the more interesting. It has dominated the news around Capitol Hill, exposing the internal battles the party is fighting about what and who they support, and frustrating nearly every Republican in the process.

All of this leads to three important questions: Why is this happening? Why is this happening now? And what does it all say about the state of the GOP in Congress?

First, the why. The simple answer is that the party can’t keep this particular fissure behind the scenes. Cheney refuses to stay silent despite public and private threats from party leaders that doing will cost her her job, and the media can’t help but cover the fight. Intra-party fights are too juicy to ignore. For many congressional Republicans, Cheney is breaking the hippocratic oath of politics: do no harm unto members of the same party.

Many Republican Representatives represent incredibly safe districts where Former President Trump remains the party’s most popular figure. Speaking out against him is tantamount to inviting a primary challenge from a more conservative challenger and putting their own jobs at risk.

To them, Cheney is purposefully and willingly putting them into a very tough position because they are asked daily about their thoughts on her comments and whether or not they agree. Either they agree with Cheney and anger Trump’s base, or disavow her and be lumped as spreaders of The Big Lie. It’s no win and politicians hate no-win situations. So, the party’s collective calculus is that removing her from her leadership post will reduce her to another rank-and-file member from a reliably conservative state and clearly establish that she doesn’t speak for them or the Republican Party.

But, why is this happening now? It has been clear for months that Cheney (and others Republicans like Adam Kinzinger) have felt this way. They haven’t tried to hide it. And many of the same folks calling for her ouster now—most notably Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy—once defended her when she initially came out with her stance. In fact, McCarthy helped beat back the initial calls for Cheney’s removal.

The answer to the why now question stems from a big misconception about political leaders in Washington: they only are leaders if they have followers. Leaders hold their jobs so long as a majority of the caucus lets them. If they no longer serve the party’s goals—political, electoral, messaging—they are usually forced out, often with a resignation that says they want to spend more time with their families. One need to look no further back than the forced resignations of former Speakers Boehner and Ryan.

In this instance, it has become clear that enough House GOP lawmakers have had enough of Cheney. The conference wants her gone and they’ve made clear they aren’t backing down. McCarthy isn’t able to contain the revolt any more even if he wanted to. As a result, he’s been forced into a binary choice: he can either continue to defend Cheney knowing he’s on the other side of most of his members (which is where no leader wants to be), or join the call for her removal and put the weight of his leadership post behind the effort. It’s clear he’s chosen option B.

So then, what does this all tell us about the current state of the GOP in Congress? First, a non-insignificant number of lawmakers agree with Trump the election was stolen and flat out reject the suggestion he had any role in the Jan. 6 debacle.

Second, the party members have made the calculation that supporting Trump—or at least not publicly contradicting him—is the safest bet both for their personal reelection and for the party to regain the majority. Even for those lawmakers who know full well The Big Lie is just that, the political upside of refusing to denounce outweighs the downside. Many Representatives represent incredibly safe districts where the former president remains the party’s most popular figure. Speaking out against him is tantamount to inviting a primary challenge from a more conservative challenger and putting their own jobs at risk. Just ask Liz Cheney.

At the party level, enough lawmakers feel that letting Cheney remain in her leadership post would alienate Trump’s base to a degree that would effectively thwart their goal of winning back the House. Simply put, they have concluded that they can’t win without Trump’s voters and they can’t keep Trump’s voters if a party leader is condemning Trump.

Republicans are well aware that they are headed towards the first midterm of a new Democratic presidency, which history suggests will result in Republican gains in Congress. They only need to win a handful of seats to take back the House, and don’t want to do anything to upset the trend.

The goal for the party is unity of message. Booting Cheney from her leadership position shows that Republicans have decided that their 2022 message is a pro-Trump one. Dissent, at least when they speak on behalf of the party, will not be tolerated.

Casey Burgat is a political scientist and director of legislative affairs at the Graduate School of Political Management at the George Washington University.

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