Just like that, without even a recorded vote, House Republicans kicked Representative Liz Cheney out of her leadership role on Wednesday morning. Cheney had been the third-highest-ranking Republican in the House, and the highest-ranking woman in the Republican Party.
Cheney says she was demoted because she voted to impeach Donald Trump earlier this year and because she refuses to subscribe to The Big Lie: the claim that the presidential election was stolen from Trump, even though there isn’t a shred of evidence. The Republicans who turned on her, including House minority leader Kevin McCarthy, said that Cheney’s role is to help Republicans stay on message, and that all of her Trump talk was dividing the GOP.
Both are correct.
The current moment feels very important as a temperature check on the hold an unpopular one-term president still has over his party. That Trump retains an iron grip is completely unsurprising.
For those figuring out what to take away from the decision, which was done by voice vote so no specific representative’s choice could be recorded, here are three answers.
In the midterm elections, Republicans own Trump
Midterm elections are almost always a referendum on the sitting president. Typically that means bad things for the party in power — see 2010, 2014, and 2018 as examples. However, with the Republicans’ highly public intraparty fight, plus the impeachment vote earlier in the year, Democrats have a chance to make the midterms a referendum not on the current president, but on the former one.
It didn’t have to be this way. Republicans could have made a clean break from Trump following the attack on the Capitol. They could have also left the question unanswered and ambiguous so that members from deeply Republican districts could say one thing and swing district members could stand with Cheney and say something else. But in this particular case, they chose, opting to stand with Trump.
To be clear, even Republican polling shows this is a problem. A poll commissioned by the campaign arm of House Republicans reportedly found that Trump was a drag on their candidates, especially in swing districts.
It is understandable that McCarthy believes removing Cheney means an end to the infighting and a focus on President Biden. But Democrats have now been handed a gift to tell a different story.
Cheney is probably going to run for president
There is a certain irony to what Republicans did. They may have thought that by removing Cheney from power they could silence her. In reality, they just gave her a bigger platform.
Much of the analysis about what happens next with Cheney is wrongly focused on whether she wins reelection to her House seat in Wyoming. With her ouster, this seems almost beside the point. Maybe she runs for reelection, or maybe she decides not to. Whatever.
Republicans have unintentionally made Cheney bigger than her House seat. Her aides have already signaled that she will do a lot of media and speeches, and campaign around the country in an attempt to reorient the party around its former Reagan principles.
And the biggest way she can do that is to run for president in 2024. And so it begins.
Or, you can take away nothing from the vote
For all of the endless hours of talk on cable news about this episode, here is the likely truth: Nothing really changes.
Sure, Democrats will get to paint Republicans as extreme, but they were going to do that anyway. Yes, Cheney is probably going to run for president instead of trying to become House speaker, but it is unlikely she will get to be either. If she mounts a Republican primary run, Cheney will be out of step with where the party is at, but at least she will have a national platform to get her message out.
And yes, House Republicans were already very much pro-Trump even if their leadership was a mixed bag on that question.
In a way, the fact that her ouster became such a foregone conclusion says all that one needs to know: There’s no news here on where the Republican Party stands in May 2021.