The Cheney Conundrum and What It Means for the GOP | Opinion

In Washington, there are two kinds of Republicans: those who care what The New York Times writes and those who don't. As hard as it is to believe, there are still some in the GOP who care deeply about what the liberal media establishment says, though it's not clear why.

The Times has been losing readership for years, along with its power to set the national agenda. It still has influence in the Acela corridor—that swath of urban liberalism between Washington, D.C., and Boston—and among the people who select the stories the major networks will cover. But most Americans get their news from the internet, where, as far as information about politics is concerned, it's still the wild, wild west.

Among folks who use the internet as their primary source of information, the Times has about as much impact as a fly on an elephant's back. To these people, what the so-called paper of record says about the GOP, conservatives in general and Donald Trump specifically doesn't matter a swivel-eyed tinker's damn.

To the elites, Wyoming representative Liz Cheney's ouster from the No. 3 position in the House GOP leadership is a big deal. To them, it's all about Trump—a person whose influence, Cheney and her newfound brethren seem to believe, must be cleansed from the party. To those who follow the House closely and understand how these things work, it's not such a big deal.

Regarding Trump, Cheney is at odds with most of her Republican colleagues. Most of them, it seems clear, either continue to embrace the former president or would rather avoid talking about him, and instead prefer to spend their time and political capital opposing the Joe Biden-Kamala Harris vision for America.

liz cheney after vote to oust her
Rep. Liz Cheney (R-WY) talks to reporters after House Republicans voted to remove her as conference chair in the U.S. Capitol Visitors Center on May 12, 2021 in Washington, D.C. Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

This is not an unreasonable position to take. Nor is Rep. Cheney's—as an individual member of Congress. If she wants to spend her time crusading against Trumpian elements within the Republican Party, she has every right to do so. However, as a member of House GOP leadership, she has obligations that go beyond the dictates of her own conscience. She is responsible to the colleagues who put her in office and who—earlier this term—voted to keep her there. That means she should be on the Sunday shows and out in the hustings helping GOP candidates take control of the House back from Nancy Pelosi and the Democrats. She can't do that if all she wants to talk about, as she's made clear, is Trump.

The Republicans should be favored to win back the majority in 2022, based on reapportionment and redistricting alone. For all the Democrats' protestations about gerrymandering—which they used to extend their own congressional majority for at least an additional 10 years beginning in 1982 without a word from elite media save for the Wall Street Journal editorial page—a fair map drawn without any demographic trickery should easily add the number of seats needed for the GOP to reach and exceed the magic number of 218. But, because nothing in politics is certain, unfocused GOP leadership could throw a wrench into the works and prevent it from happening.

The list of things that could go wrong for Republicans' House prospects is long and largely speculative. High atop it, though, is a campaign in which Democrats and major media outlets force GOP congressional candidates to defend Trump day in and day out instead of taking the attack to Biden and the Democrats. In that environment, Cheney's repeated condemnations of the former president and his influence on the party would not have been helpful to winning the House Republican Conference a majority for the two years before the next presidential election. And it would have been fatal to the Republican Party's attempt to regain control of the Senate.

Members of the congressional leadership are expected to be team players. Leaders, even in the minority, must balance the interests of all members of their conference against their own. It is not easy and not a job for the faint of heart. But the number one priority, former House speaker Newt Gingrich once told me, is "Don't do anything that will start a civil war inside your own party." Cheney broke that rule and received the appropriate consequence. She has not been thrown out of office or stripped of her committee assignments. She's now free to pursue what she thinks best for herself and the GOP without diminishing the prospects the other Republicans serving with her will be reelected.

In Washington, that matters. Out in America, where real life exists, not so much.

Newsweek contributing editor Peter Roff has written extensively about politics and the American experience for U.S. News and World Report, United Press International, and other publications. He can be reached by email at RoffColumns@GMAIL.com. Follow him on Twitter @PeterRoff.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.