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Analysis

The Liz Cheney vs. Kevin McCarthy situation, explained

Republicans Liz Cheney and Kevin McCarthy, once allies, are now at odds.
Republicans Liz Cheney and Kevin McCarthy, once allies, are now at odds.Anna Moneymaker/NYT

On Tuesday afternoon, the political world became dominated by a sudden rift between Liz Cheney, the single member of the US House from Wyoming and the daughter of former vice president Dick Cheney, and House Republican Leader Kevin McCarthy of California.

While this story might appear to have come out of nowhere, the conflict is a central tension point in the battle over the identity and future of the Republican Party. Here’s a deeper look into what it all means.

So what is this about?

It depends who you ask.

On Monday, Cheney initiated a back-and-forth with Donald Trump, her latest challenge to the former president. On Tuesday, McCarthy said he had enough of her and wouldn’t stand in the way if fellow House Republicans wanted to remove her from her leadership position as the third-ranking member of their group. This vote could happen as early as next week.

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For Cheney, this is all about The Big Lie perpetrated by Trump, who continues to insist without evidence that the election was stolen from him last November. The passion behind that lie — and Trump’s persistence in pushing it — led to the insurrection attempt on the US Capitol on Jan. 6.

Cheney was one of 10 House Republicans who voted to impeach Trump for his role in inciting the insurrection. But she is the only member of the House leadership to do so, so her vote was particularly notable.

The vast majority of Republicans did not agree with her vote to impeach. Many of those same Republicans wanted to punish her for being so out of step with them.

But wait, didn’t Republicans already vote to oust her from leadership for that impeachment vote?

Indeed, they did! That was back in February and she won that vote easily 145-61, silencing a lot of her critics for a time.

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So they are just doing it again?

Remember when I wrote that what is happening now depends on who you ask? Well, ask Cheney and it is about Jan. 6 and Trump. Ask McCarthy, and it is about Republican unity.

During the February vote, McCarthy actually made a speech defending Cheney, even though he disagreed with her vote. He hoped that the overwhelming victory for Cheney would put the whole matter behind them. He hoped her detractors would stop going after Cheney and he hoped that Cheney would be chastened from the experience and stop going after Trump.

Did she?

Nope. In a way, it looks like she was emboldened by the vote. She hasn’t backed off her criticism of Trump and her belief that he and the rioters severely hurt democracy.

Exacerbating matters, her role as House Republican Conference Chair is to control the messaging of the Republican caucus. As long as she is in this role, her attacks on Trump will represent more than just her own voice.

Things really took a turn last week as House Republicans gathered for a meeting at an Orlando hotel. They regularly hold these gatherings to reinforce party messages and get everyone on the same page. Only this time, the discussion was all about Cheney.

Why?

Well, a big part of it had to do with an interview she gave with the New York Post. She said two things that raised eyebrows: First, she wasn’t ruling out a run for president in 2024; and second, she thought any Republican who voted to not certify the votes for president should be disqualified for running.

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Is that it?

No. You know how Trump doesn’t have a Facebook or Twitter account? What he does now is send press releases from the Office of the 45th President two or three times a day. The messages read a lot like his Twitter feed once did, but since he is out of office they get less attention.

On Monday, Trump sent a one-line “press release” attempting to misappropriate the term “The Big Lie” to describe what he inaccurately claims happened after the election. It said, “The Fraudulent Presidential Election of 2020 will be, from this day forth, known as THE BIG LIE!.”

Without naming Trump, Cheney responded to the statement by tweeting that, “The 2020 presidential election was not stolen. Anyone who claims it was is spreading THE BIG LIE, turning their back on the rule of law, and poisoning our democratic system.”

Trump then responded with another “press release” saying that he hoped one of her primary challengers beats her next year for reelection in Wyoming. People there, Trump said, “never liked her much,” despite her huge re-election wins and storied family legacy in the state.

As it happened, Cheney was just about to go on stage at a major Republican donor conference in Georgia, and she decided to double down on her criticism of the former president.

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“We can’t embrace the notion the election is stolen. It’s a poison in the bloodstream of our democracy,” Cheney said at the private event, according to CNN. “We can’t whitewash what happened on Jan. 6 or perpetuate Trump’s big lie. It is a threat to democracy. What he did on Jan. 6 is a line that cannot be crossed.”

But what does this have to do with McCarthy?

McCarthy — as John Boehner and Paul Ryan found out — runs a Republican caucus that is basically unmanageable given the dynamics of his Republican members. No matter how “authentic” to the Republican base someone is, they become “establishment” once they get a leadership position. If McCarthy seems like he is flip-flopping on issues and positions, it is because he is trying to hang on to his leadership position himself.

To whit: After the Trump-Cheney spat, Tucker Carlson on Fox News devoted an entire monologue attacking McCarthy on other issues, essentially deriding him as a member of a corporatist establishment. This could spell real damage for McCarthy — Carlson has the highest-rated show on Fox News and is a hugely influential mouthpiece for its devoted base.

Less than 24 hours after Carlson attacked McCarthy, the House Republican Leader appeared on Fox News saying he had lost confidence in Cheney.

But wait, wasn’t McCarthy also blaming Trump for the insurrection? Why has he turned on Cheney now?

Cheney’s aim is to hold Trump accountable for his actions after the election. These days, McCarthy is less concerned about that. He sees his members fighting and a member of leadership creating problems. Remember, Cheney controls the messaging of the entire caucus in her current role. And from McCarthy’s perspective, she isn’t delivering a unifying message by continuing to criticize Trump, regardless of his lies about the election or his role in the Jan. 6 attacks. Indeed, Rep. Jim Banks (R-OH) is already emerging to challenge Cheney on the party’s messaging.

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While McCarthy criticized Trump during and immediately after the attacks, it didn’t last. He has embraced the former president in the last two months and he is likely sick of dealing with the drama inside his team.

Does that mean that Cheney is toast on her leadership position?

Appears so. The conversation quickly moved from “will Cheney survive a second vote” to “who will take her position?” Given she is the top-ranking woman in the House Republican caucus, Republicans appear to understand they will have an optics problem if they dump her and don’t replace her with another woman. McCarthy is reportedly pushing his favored candidate, Rep. Elise Stefanik (R-N.Y.).

Anything else?

Yes. This is also about who will become the next House speaker. Republicans are only in the minority by six seats. Traditionally, the party out of power gains seats in the midterm, which could put the Republicans back in charge of the House two years from now. McCarthy, currently the number one Republican, would like to be the next speaker. Cheney, the number three Republican, would also like to be the next speaker. And Steve Scalise, the number two Republican, reportedly would also like to be the next speaker. With three powerful Republicans vying for one seat, there’s bound to be jockeying for position.

OK, I’ll ask one more time: anything else?

Sure, it is also about the future of the Republican Party. Most House Republicans support Trump and want to forget the attacks on Jan. 6. Cheney, however, steadfastly continues to challenge the former president and call for a moment of reckoning over his actions.

Removing Cheney may or may not resolve the need for that reckoning. Depending who you ask.


James Pindell can be reached at james.pindell@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @jamespindell.