Cheney Had to Go, But Stefanik Only Postpones the Inevitable | Opinion

Congresswoman Liz Cheney has been removed from House GOP leadership by voice vote. Go ahead, do a little celebration dance; the last neocon dead-ender with any clout has been formally rebuked by her party. But then get serious, because this is at best a temporary truce heading into 2022.

While there is no official count, opinion among House Republicans has clearly shifted from a few weeks ago, when the caucus voted to keep her. Cheney's ongoing provocations became a problem for all of them back home, so they knew she had to go, even if nobody wanted to go on the record swinging the axe for fear of alienating establishment donors. (Some "Trumpist takeover" that turned out to be.)

I'm glad Liz Cheney was removed. As Voltaire said of the British navy, "it's good to kill an admiral from time to time to encourage the others." This is a principle the British have institutionalized in government as well as warfare; they sack prime ministers for overtly political reasons all the time, but it isn't something we do in the United States.

That's a shame, because all the talk about a "multiracial working-class party" or a "realignment" is probably going to amount to nothing if it's led by the same people in Congress as before. If a GOP politician with a donor base of small-government patrons starts talking about working-class conservatism, it's probably safe to assume he's doing marketing, not politics.

There have been plenty of nimble statesmen throughout history who managed to change course in unexpected ways, but I doubt there are any in Congress today. Sometimes it's better just to sack the leaders you have and replace them with ones better suited to the moment.

Alas, Cheney's likely replacement is at best a temporary settlement to forestall the inevitable until after the midterm elections. If you liked Trump because he pointed toward a future for the GOP that was less laissez-faire, more socially conservative and less hawkish, there's not much in Rep. Elise Stefanik's (R-N.Y.) record for you.

Josh Kraushaar and many others have pointed to the fact that Cheney voted with Trump much more often than Stefanik did. This discrepancy, they argue, proves that the House GOP leadership fight wasn't really about policy at all, just personal loyalty to the former president. This is both true and untrue. It's untrue because congressional voting records aren't the best barometer for loyalty to a president. Any bill that actually got voted on was already the product of compromises between Trump and congressional leadership, most of whom agreed with Cheney on major issues (that's why they kept her around for so long). Almost none of Trump's accomplishments that could be described as "populist" were ever put to Congress.

Liz Cheney
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, DC. GOP members removed Cheney from her leadership position after she become a target for former President Donald Trump and his followers in the House as she has continually expressed the need for the Republican Party to separate themselves from Trump over his role in the January 6 attack on the Capitol. Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

At the same time, it's a fair criticism, because if the GOP wanted to demonstrate a policy vision suited to Trumpism, Stefanik is the last person they'd pick. She's not a social conservative, and she voted against Trump's tax cuts for the least populist reason ever: because it didn't maintain the SALT deduction. She's also a fairly conventional Republican hawk on foreign policy—maybe there is a groundswell of grassroots conservatives demanding the prosecution of John Kerry for "selling out" America to Iran, but I doubt it. Stefanik, more than almost any other Republican, makes this settlement vulnerable to cult-of-personality accusations because there seems to be almost nothing else at stake in the choice between her and Cheney, based on her record.

Replacing Cheney with Stefanik would mean holding on to an unsustainable position. For macroeconomic reasons a foreign policy retrenchment is inevitable. We can't afford an empire, first of all. American energy independence, and the fact that the largest buyers of American goods are in our hemisphere, militate in that direction. Several political factors are already driving the GOP toward taking this problem up: U.S. military power is the guarantor of a globalist economic system many voters increasingly find doesn't work for them. What's more, American hegemony now comes as a package deal with an aggressive cultural liberalism that many Americans, let alone Africans and Latin Americans, are deeply uncomfortable with. Lastly, the soft power apparatus and national security state that maintain our overseas presence are starting to turn against conservatives in this country, and those conservatives are quite reasonably going to want their elected leaders to do something about it.

There are immense institutional interests opposed to taking up this problem, and selecting Stefanik as conference chair shows the Republican Party isn't there yet. But as sure as night follows day, this rebalance will happen. The only question is whether it's hard—following some sort of national humiliation in a decades-long unwinnable conflict—or soft. With the name "Cheney" sounding increasingly bitter in the mouths of Republican voters, the demands will start to come from them first, and the party will have to listen more than it has in the past.

From 2015 to the present day, Republican critics of Trump have been, with the exception of Justin Amash, foreign policy hawks. Many of them lined up behind a CIA agent in the 2016 election. The Lincoln Project is mostly comprised of former McCain and Romney consultants. Miles Taylor, the junior Trump administration staffer who attempted to subvert the White House anonymously from the pages of The New York Times, was a former Dick Cheney intern.

The sane response from a hawk in 2016 would have been to concede they'd gotten out a little ahead of the public, which clearly isn't as keen on war as they are. Nobody is saying they need to change their minds; they're entitled to their opinions, wrong though they may be. But they need to be willing to let the anti-interventionist streak in the GOP coexist.

Liz Cheney wasn't willing to do that. As conference chair, she backed a primary challenge to one of the handful of reliably antiwar GOP votes in the House. Now that she's out of leadership, Cheney will take on the same posture as the Never Trump cohort: either we're in charge or we burn the party down. It's not about loyalty to Trump, it's about loyalty to them.

This is why Cheney needs to be primaried, not just removed from leadership. A serious political party does not concede to such blatant extortion. Doing so would be disastrous for the GOP's political prospects in 2022.

Arthur Bloom is editor of The American Conservative online.

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