What is being described by outsiders as a struggle for the soul of the Republican Party between those loyal to former president Donald Trump and those seeking to cleanse the GOP of the scourge of Trumpism has elements of an old-fashioned settling of scores.
Mr. Trump rose to power by repudiating his party’s old guard, which had increasingly lost touch with an electorate weary of the wars and free-trade deals initiated by Republican presidents. And no one epitomized the old guard’s hawkish ideology and haughty arrogance more than former vice-president Dick Cheney, who pulled the strings in George W. Bush’s White House.
During the 2016 presidential campaign, Mr. Trump attacked the old guard of his party as much as his Democratic opponent, Hillary Clinton. His “America First” motto signalled a clear break with the global interventionism championed by Mr. Cheney, perhaps the person most responsible for the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq and the military quagmire that ensued.
Mr. Cheney’s daughter, Liz Cheney, was elected to the House of Representatives in the 2016 Trump wave. Her Wyoming district is considered one of the reddest in the country. Mr. Trump, who won 67 per cent of the popular vote in Wyoming in 2016, managed to increase his share of the vote there to nearly 70 per cent in 2020.
The Cheneys supported Mr. Trump in 2016 as the lesser of two evils, Ms. Clinton constituting, in their eyes, the devil incarnate. And during Mr. Trump’s term in office, Ms. Cheney voted in Congress to advance his agenda. But it is now clear she was biting her tongue all along.
The Cheneys began to reap their revenge against Mr. Trump even before the Jan. 6 Capitol riot that forever cast a stain on the Trump presidency and U.S. democracy. Axios reported that Ms. Cheney had been responsible for a Jan. 5 Washington Post op-ed signed by all 10 living former defence secretaries, including her father, that called on the country’s military leaders to reject any attempt by Mr. Trump to cling to power. Axios called it a “power play” by the Cheneys.
Ms. Cheney was hailed as a brave heroine for voting, along with nine other GOP House members, to impeach Mr. Trump following the riot he stood accused of inciting. By then, however, she had already declared war on Mr. Trump, so there was nothing particularly gutsy about her vote. It was just the next salvo in her war to reinstate the old guard atop the GOP.
For now, Ms. Cheney looks like she is losing that war. GOP House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy was caught on a hot mic this week telling a Fox News host that he had “had it” with her anti-Trump antics, feeding speculation that she could soon be replaced as House GOP conference chair.
Republican members of Congress worry Ms. Cheney’s relentless attacks on the former president – who still insists the 2020 election was “stolen” – are distracting from the party’s efforts to win back the House in 2022. Mr. Trump, banned from mainstream social media platforms, released a statement this week calling Ms. Cheney a “warmongering fool who has no business in the Republican Party leadership.”
Still, Ms. Cheney is playing a longer game than most of her House colleagues. While they fear Mr. Trump’s wrath in next year’s midterm elections, she is betting his influence over the GOP will soon wane. Privately, most Republicans acknowledge they are eager to move on from Mr. Trump. And his reign may increasingly look like an aberration as the GOP embraces its traditional stands on foreign policy and fiscal management, only minus the endless wars.
“We Republicans need to stand for genuinely conservative principles, and steer away from the dangerous and anti-democratic Trump cult of personality,” Ms. Cheney wrote this week in (yet another) op-ed in the Post, which is owned by Trump nemesis Jeff Bezos. “We believe in the rule of law, in limited government, in a strong national defence, and in prosperity and opportunity brought by low taxes and fiscally conservative policies.”
As President Joe Biden tacks left, undertaking the biggest expansion of government since the New Deal, Republicans have a unique opportunity to seize the middle. In 2016, the GOP old guard opened the door to Mr. Trump’s populist insurgency by ignoring for too long the pain and frustration of the working class. The GOP must now reconnect with its long-standing principles without once again losing working-class voters.
As such, Ms. Cheney’s effrontery represents the beginning of a Republican renewal, even if she is trying to settle some scores along the way.
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