When Congress returns in January, there will be fewer Democrats than there were in December. If current projections hold, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s current 37-seat lead will have shrunk to as few as nine — the most tenuous grip on power she’s ever had as speaker. At the same time, pending the Georgia runoffs, Mitch McConnell will be returning for his fourth term as Senate majority leader.
There will be a host of new Republican faces and a few old ones, including Kentucky Rep. Thomas Massie, which might be awkward for Wyoming Rep. Liz Cheney, who chairs the House Republican Conference but donated money to Massie’s primary opponent. A libertarian troublemaker who now bears Ron Paul’s “Dr. No” nickname, the anti-war Massie has long been a procedural pain in Republican leadership’s side. So when one of his stands earned the ire of President Donald Trump, the reliably pro-war Cheney saw an opportunity to get rid of him and went for it.
Given the president’s angry tweet, Cheney didn’t think the MAGA crowd would mind the member in charge of the conference taking a shot at one of her own, but she grossly misread the moment. When members angrily confronted her for this and the rest of her anti-Trump messaging during the first in-person House Republican meeting in weeks, someone — widely assumed to be Cheney and her staff — leaked the contents of the closed-door argument to Politico. The comments didn’t look good for her. You might say it was a gross misreading of the moment.
In fact, Cheney has grossly misread just about every single thing about Trump’s presidency from start to finish. Last week, while some Republicans left their homes and boarded planes to assist the party and president in contested election brawls, she opted to join a ticketed gathering of marginalized Never Trumpers to discuss the future of a party they plan to once again control.
The speakers list included a host of the usual suspects: Sen. Ben Sasse, Sen. Tim Scott, and for some reason Reince Priebus. But unlike Scott, who really doesn’t want to be disliked, and Sasse, who seems clinically unable to be liked, Cheney is in leadership. She’s not just in leadership: Most signs suggest she someday wants to be speaker of the House.
There’s a problem with this plan, though, and if it wasn’t evident in 2019 it sure is now: The Republican base that came out and voted for Trump in numbers no incumbent president has ever won — the base that is sending well more than 40 new, smiling Republican faces to the House and Senate — is not the base that elected her father and George W. Bush in 2000. It’s very different, and it’s not going to snap back to the way things were.
If true, this means Cheney is trying to lead a party she doesn’t really understand.
“She Kind of Reminds You of Margaret Thatcher,” reads the headline of a now thoroughly silly Politico Magazine profile published days before the election. “Could the daughter of one of the more reviled leaders in recent GOP history,” the article wondered, “become the face of the party as soon as next year?”
But when you add up the D.C. Republicans who have been elected since 2017, you’re looking at more than 40 percent of the federal GOP — meaning in every one of the four years Cheney’s been in Congress, the party has become less and less the party of the neoconservatives, and more and more the party of the populists.
Trump could leave office soon. But even if Joe Biden is inaugurated in January, Trump is going to continue to shape the Republican Party. It is easy to forget given the constant crush of media attacks that he is the most popular Republican in the country.
Is there any doubt that his rallies will continue? That the battle chest he’s raised since the networks called the race won’t be put to use? That Republicans will stop calling for his help to push tight elections over the finish line — or that weak-kneed incumbents will stop fearing him?
And what does this party want, anyways? Put simply: build the wall, get tough on China, apply aggressive trade policy to American manufacturing, fight the woke left, and stop endless wars. Cheney isn’t with the populists on about half of these planks. Granted, she has a lot of friends who agree with her and tides could change, but year after year their numbers get fewer.
Speaker of the House John Boehner wasn’t a Tea Party Republican, and he resisted a number of their causes before looking around, seeing his party looked a lot like the Tea Party, and leaving the speakership. Speaker of the House Paul Ryan was bewildered as 2016 rose up around him, wandering from awkward press conference to awkward press conference before quitting the campaign trail in the final weeks. When Trump took office, he looked around and left the speakership.
Speaker of the House Kevin McCarthy is a canny politician who looked around as well, saw where the party was, and got with it. He’s no MAGA populist at heart — he’s transactional — but it’s impossible to come away from a conversation with him and not realize he understands the moment like few in leadership do.
So what exactly is Cheney doing? Whatever her plan, you can bet it is a gross miscalculation.