When Liz Cheney, the single US House Representative for the state of Wyoming, was sacked as chair of the Republican party conference, there were broadly two views of what that signified, for her and for the Republican party. The more popular view by far was that her dismissal from the third most important post in the party had confirmed and strengthened Donald Trump as crucial to the future of the Republican cause and that her political career was pretty much over. The other view was that being down at this particular juncture did not mean she was out.
And the huge coverage – and speculation – her dismissal has attracted in the United States in the days since, even when she is being written off, would seem only to confirm this. For detractors and supporters alike, her removal from the Republican leadership line-up means something
Cheney’s ‘crime’ in the eyes of her fellow House Republicans was to have been a vociferous opponent of Trump’s claim he had won an election he lost. More than this, she had become the standard bearer within the Republican hierarchy for opposing what has come to be known as ‘the big lie’ that last November’s election was ‘stolen’.
She began her anti-Trump campaign in earnest after the notorious storming of the Capitol on 6 January. She was one of just ten Republican House members (out of more than 200) who voted for his impeachment – a vote that was, and is, regarded as treachery by Trump supporters everywhere. Trump was subsequently acquitted by the Senate, which could not muster the two-thirds majority needed for a ‘guilty’ verdict on the charge of ‘inciting insurrection’. But Cheney was the most senior Republican to break ranks, and the knives were out.
But Cheney was not deterred. Even as Trump has continued to promote ‘the big lie’ in his public appearances, so Cheney has also been out there, proclaiming herself the apostle of truth and insisting she ‘won’t sit back and watch in silence’ as her party ‘abandons the rule of law’. Even by the standard of bluntness set by Trump, these are strong words.
And her stance sets her at odds, not just with Trump and the majority of Republicans in the US Congress, but with the 70 per cent of Republican voters who are estimated to regard Trump as the election victor and Joe Biden’s presidency as illegitimate. It also appears to have got under Trump’s skin – to the point where he has called her a ‘bitter, horrible human being’, and ‘bad for the Republican party’.
So why would Liz Cheney still have a political future, and a prominent one, perhaps, at that?
First, because the vote in the House may not be quite as conclusive as it appeared. To be sure, it cost Cheney her seniority. But it was a voice vote, with no names recorded, and may not have been quite as solid as it looked. Nor is the current complexion of the congressional Republican party set in stone. It reflects the imperative for those running for office last November to fashion themselves in Trump’s image in the expectation he would be re-elected. That could change before the mid-term Congressional elections next year – when the standing of Trump within the party may be different.
Fully paid-up Trumpists do not believe there will be any change. But they could be wrong – which is the second reason for thinking Cheney’s career might not be over. Trump himself, 75 next month, could tire of being out of office, and decide that the game is not worth the candle. Were he to bow out of politics, in whatever way, the direction of the party could change overnight, because his sway has always been personal. He had the party establishment behind him only in so far as he represented the best chance of being elected, and the relationship was often, and remains, awkward.
It is not impossible that Cheney’s calculation – if she has made a calculation – is correct, and she will be ready with the non-Trump alternative, and the huge advantage, as truth-teller, of the moral high ground. Nor should the dynamism of US politics be underestimated. From this side of the Atlantic, it might seem that the US has only just held elections. In the US, however, the skirmishing is already on for next year’s Congressional elections, but also for the presidency in 2024 – when, it is widely assumed, Biden by virtue of his age will not be running.
Which is a third reason why Cheney may yet have a future. Six months after the election, it might just be possible for grass-roots Republicans to believe that Biden is a pretender. Two years, then four years, in, as he implements his programme, that becomes more difficult. The party is already deeply split over Trump. But professional politicians need to be re-elected, and if Trump gradually disengages or if – as a past president twice impeached, albeit twice acquitted and defeated – he comes to be seen as a liability, then Cheney, as one of the few Congressional Republicans to have exposed ‘the big lie’, could be waiting in the wings.
Some have criticised her for opposing from within rather than leaving the party to become an independent, but she is a political creature from a political family and well knows the disadvantage faced by a politician in the US system without the backing of a party machine. Cheney’s pedigree is a fourth reason not to write her off.
As the elder daughter of former vice-president Dick Cheney – perhaps more to the point, of his formidable wife, Lynne – Liz has a background and a degree of name-recognition that militates against her disappearing from public life – unless that is her preference. And while it is entirely possible that the next stage in her banishment from the Republican party leadership will be an attempt to de-select her as Wyoming’s House Representative, that process need not blight her future. Were she to survive, she would have shown her electoral appeal as a Republican. If not, she would have gained time to prepare, perhaps, for a presidential run in 2024.
Nor – despite all the furious attacks from Trump and his devotees – need her politics be any liability to remaining in, or even leading, a post-Trump Republican party. She is an unapologetic conservative – pro-gun rights, pro-death penalty, anti-abortion, anti-immigration, leading some critics to say she has failed to move with the times. Her vocal opposition to gay marriage, which may or may not have been contrived for electoral purposes, brought a very public break with her married gay sister when she was campaigning for a Senate seat in 2013.
But she also attracts criticism from within the anti-Trump camp for having been too compliant while he was in office, when she mostly reserved her censure for his generally non-interventionist foreign policy. How far the brickbats currently flying in her direction might work to her disadvantage in future, however, is another matter. Being chided by different Republican camps could allow her to cast herself as a unifier, post-Trump.
‘I will do everything that I can to ensure that the former president never again gets anywhere near the Oval Office,’ Cheney said as she left the meeting where she had been sacked. That could just include running for president herself in 2024, when – if she won the nomination – she could find herself running against Kamala Harris, and in with at least a chance of becoming the first female president of the United States.
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