House Republican Conference Chair Liz Cheney came under fire from members of her party this week, but if you listen to her neoconservative ideological allies, it’s for reasons totally divorced from the truth.
On Friday, The Dispatch’s Steve Hayes, appearing on Fox News’ “Special Report,” made Rep. Cheney his “winner of the week” for fending off her critics, claiming she “stood down an ambush from fellow Republicans who claimed she was insufficiently loyal to President Trump.” This follows comments earlier this week from Commentary’s Noah Rothman, who framed the issue similarly on the magazine’s daily podcast and described it as a preview of post-2020 recriminations among Republicans about the future of the party post-Trump.
Both neoconservative commentators seem to be operating under an utterly fictional frame of what was going on in the criticism of Cheney, who has become a target of widespread criticism from both conservative and moderate members for reasons having nothing to do with her ideology.
While Hayes and Rothman frame the irritation that bubbled over in this week’s Republican Conference meeting as driven by President Trump, in fact, Cheney likely thought she was expressing loyalty to the president when, following antagonistic tweets in March about fellow Republican Rep. Thomas Massie from Trump, she donated the maximum amount to Massie’s opponent, Todd McMurtry.
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The donations — also made by Republican Rep. Mike Turner and the Republican Jewish Coalition — ultimately backfired when racist comments from McMurtry were publicized, leading the members to ask for their donations to be returned. Rep. Matt Gaetz and others openly criticized the move at the time.
.@Liz_Cheney is the GOP Conference Chair.
She has $ supported this proudly racist candidate.
She owes Republicans an explanation.
Liz – How do you square your support of McMurtry w what you said about Steve King?
Do we tolerate Racism if it’s Anti-Massie? Or paired w BBQ? https://t.co/aOe9JFYVba
— Matt Gaetz (@mattgaetz) April 18, 2020
In Washington, Massie is viewed as an affable eccentric and an anti-war libertarian who lives off the grid. But he is also known as a particularly effective politician who matches up well with his Kentucky district. He won his primary in June with 81 percent of the primary vote.
This week’s Republican Conference meeting was the first to be held in-person in months, following meetings that required members to call in and get in a teleconference queue. This meant it was also the first meeting where any member could stand at a microphone and bring up Cheney’s very public violation of long-held understandings about donations and support from party leadership to the primary opponents of their fellow elected members.
When Gaetz brought up the issue in the Conference meeting, it quickly led to a contentious battle that looped in an increasing number of members — driven by Cheney’s dismissal of their complaints, and particularly her decision to call Massie a “special case”:
Cheney initially dismissed Gaetz’s remarks on Tuesday, noting it was not a political conference meeting, but quipped that she was “looking forward to your documentary,” referring to Gaetz’s upcoming HBO documentary “The Swamp,” according to sources.
Gaetz then said he deserved an answer, before House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) intervened.
“McCarthy stepped in to conduct a separate meeting among the aggrieved parties and Liz to discuss issues,” one GOP lawmaker told The Hill. “McCarthy tried to defuse it and tell folks he would schedule a separate meeting.” …
Massie, who was next in line to speak at the microphone during Tuesday’s meeting, immediately went after Cheney for initially supporting his primary challenger. Cheney told Massie — who has butted heads with Cheney on a number of policy issues — that he was a “special case” and that his “problem was with the president, not me.”
Massie then shot back that his problem was with her, not President Trump.
Once the snarky “special case” language was used by Cheney, it ramped up tension dramatically. Members on both ideological ends of the Republican Conference are very conscious of the idea that they, too, could be considered a “special case” in the future. While it’s true that members raised ideological stances by Cheney as problematic for their election efforts, that was neither the inciting event nor the point of their complaints, which focused far more on inter-party rules, on having each others’ back and decorum of donations to primary opponents, not about her political positions on Afghanistan.
What this incident reveals about Cheney is not an ideological dispute, but a political failure in keeping with her earlier very abbreviated run for Senate and her foolish donation to a problematic challenger. Ensuring both conservatives and moderates within the Republican Conference believe their leaders hear their concerns is key.
While her neoconservative allies might defend Cheney out of loyalty, they’d be wiser to find more politically astute vehicles for their ideology if they hope to make a comeback in the future.