Cheney's Supposed Long Game and the Death of Democracy
[Note to readers: In my new Verdict column today, I ridicule the panic about "cancel culture" on the American right. Basic message: This is the "political correctness" panic on steroids, and it has become a parody of itself surprisingly quickly. And if you disagree with me, you are guilty of trying to cancel me, you woke McCarthyite censorious silencer! My column below, by contrast, discusses a topic that has genuine content.]
by Neil H. Buchanan
If a person were to put her mental health at risk by bingeing my entire run of Dorf on Law and Verdict writings from 2015 onward, the overall message that she would take away is captured in Dante's admonition: "Abandon hope, all ye who enter here." I was, of course, pleasantly surprised when we just barely avoided a full-on fascist takeover of the country by Trumpists in the post-2020 election time period, but it truly was a just-barely moment. In the months since then, my sense of doom has returned and deepened.
As part of that line of thought, my Dorf on Law column this past Tuesday takes as its central premise that Republicans are in the final stages of successfully changing election laws in enough places around the country to guarantee to themselves permanent minoritarian rule, with unpopular Republican majorities in both houses of Congress and a series of Republican presidents ruling from January 2025 onward. (Congress will, in fact, probably flip to the Republicans two years earlier.)
Again, I do not so much argue about whether that will happen but take it as essentially guaranteed. Tuesday's column is primarily devoted to discussing how the commentary about future sham elections will continue to treat the end of constitutional democracy not as a result of election rigging but with silly pundit-speak tropes, such as Democrats not having found a "message" that resonates with swing voters, or that Democratic candidates were especially weak, or something like that.
After all, no one even talks about how Florida's comfortable win for Trump in 2020 was nailed down when the state's Republicans continued to disenfranchise ex-felons, contrary to the popular will. The post-election discussion was all about how Democrats took Latinx voters for granted, or whatever.
As I was planning to write that column, I intended to tie Republican Rep. Liz Cheney's situation into the narrative. In the end, I steered away from her story, because there was more than enough to talk about without pulling her into the mix. Now that she has been booted from the Republicans' House leadership team, however, it is important to ask just what it means for American democracy that she did not knuckle under and is not going quietly.
While some commentators see in Cheney's recent drama the possibility of an eventual return to sanity by Republicans, my initial take has been that it changes nothing at all. As things began to heat up last week, however, one Republican strategist opined that Cheney is engaged in a "very smart long game," and Bill Sher asserted in The Washington Monthly that "she really does have a plausible path to GOP domination—but it will take more than four years."
The problem with that theory is that it assumes that the Republicans have not yet succeeded in rigging future elections. As Sher puts it: "Parties can only lose so much before its rank-and-file members conclude, 'the problem isn’t you, it’s me.'" That is, he looks selectively at history and assures us that voters in a party that loses a string of elections ultimately look inward and decide to stop nominating losers. This not only ascribes an almost laughable just-so story to voters' internal monologues, but it also necessarily and crucially assumes -- as applied to the current moment -- that Republicans will lose future elections.
There is only one way that Republicans -- fresh off of another round of shameless gerrymandering, voter suppression, and changing the rules of election administration to allow results to be changed by partisan hacks -- could actually lose elections going forward. There must be a bleed of once-Republican voters so large that it prevents even the new set of rules from guaranteeing that Democrats will lose.
And that could happen, I suppose. As Chris Hayes pointed out on his show last night, there still are close election results in this country, and even a slippage of one or two percentage points can make the difference (at least under the old rules). The U.S. Senate runoffs in Georgia this year are only the most prominent examples, but even more dramatically, Republicans picked up two House seats in 2020 by 109 and 6 votes (!), respectively. Even with my level of concern at DEFCON-1, it is still possible to imagine that Republicans could be denied House and Senate seats in upcoming elections if enough Republicans walk away from their candidates.
Will they do so? Cheney now claims that she is fully committed to preserving the Constitution and respecting free and fair elections. During her post-cancellation press tour, she said that she "won't let a former president or anybody else unravel the democracy. Whatever it takes." Her anti-Trump compatriot Adam Kinzinger (R-IL) similarly argued that his party is "real sick" and "needs some real help, and if we're not going to be willing to stand up and put it all on the line for that, this party's not going to be around in the future."
So what does Cheney mean by "[w]hatever it takes"? What does Kinzinger mean by "put[ting] it all on the line"? What they in fact have to mean, as Hayes pointed out, is guaranteeing that Democrats win future elections and stay in power, at least until enough losses pile up for Cheney and Kinzinger to come to their party's rescue -- and, by the way, return it to its pre-Trumpian levels of constitutional degradation, regressive tax policy, repression of minorities and women, and warmongering.
Will the Cheney types actually help Democrats win? From their standpoint, the ideal outcome would be to nominate like-minded Republicans, win general elections, and then take over the reins of power with a non-Trumpian party that as a nominal matter respects elections. That, however, surely will not happen, at least not in 2022 or 2024. They will, therefore, have to choose between Trumpist Republicans or Democrats, some of the latter being very liberal and others at least being willing to compromise with the party's liberal wing to support things that Cheney and Kinzinger hate.
Telling like-minded Republican voters -- assuming that there are any -- not to vote at all is the weenie's way out, both because it cuts the numerical effectiveness of the protest against Trumpist Republicans in half and because it would have them saying, "Nothing is more important than taking power away from Trump and his cult. Nothing. Nothing, of course, except for voting for Democrats, who are the worst." Former House Speaker John Boehner admitted that he voted for Trump in 2020 for the usual reasons -- tax cuts and judges -- but what I am imagining here is in some ways worse, because it would involve Cheney and Kinzinger (and any other stragglers that they can find) being self-contradictory on a much grander scale. Unlike Boehner, who concedes that he would have been happy with Trump winning reelection, Cheney/Kinzinger would be saying that Republicans should not be in office but then refusing to do what is needed to keep them out.
This can be seen even more starkly at the presidential level. Imagine that Biden is not on the ballot in 2024, for one reason or another. After a spirited primary season, Stacey Abrams emerges as the Democratic nominee, with Beto O'Rourke as her running mate. Would the anti-Trump Republicans stand up and affirmatively support the Democrats in a race against Donald Trump and Marjorie Taylor Greene? A Washington Post story earlier this week ended with this:
[Cheney] has also ruled out the route favored by people like [conservative activist and commentator Bill] Kristol, who supported Biden in the last election. “She is absolutely a die-hard conservative,” said one Cheney ally, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss her plans. “No one is going to get to the right of her on the issues. No one is going to confuse her with a mushy Northeastern moderate.”
This was two days ago, which means that Cheney's current thinking seems to reject supporting Democrats, even in the situation in which we found ourselves in 2020. Everyone knew that Trump was a dangerous fool, but Cheney could not bring herself to break with her party. Even with the January 6 insurrection now in the mix -- which caused Cheney to break with Trump and vote for his second impeachemnt -- she is still apparently rejecting the idea of allying with Democrats.
Might that change? Possibly, but if she is not already willing to do what is necessary, what more could make her change her mind now? Why would she come out, directly or at least passively, in favor of Abrams/O'Rourke to keep Trump out of the Oval Office? Again, her current thinking is that Kristol's approach is unacceptable.
Is there any other way in which Cheney might be playing a brilliant long game? If she were to live by her word and do everything within her power to stop Trumpism but failed to do so, she would have no future in politics at all. The Trumpists will never forgive her, and the Democrats would have no reason to include a torture-defending extreme conservative in their permanent minority party.
If Cheney is positioning herself for a future presidential run (which many commentators are suggesting), then she either has to do that as an independent candidate or as a Republican. Unless Kinzinger is right that his party is so sick that it will fall apart entirely, an independent run is doomed to fail. So what would Cheney's path to power look like as a Republican?
As an initial matter, Trump would have to have died by then. I mean that quite literally, because as long as he is alive, the party's apparatus will not move past him or forgive Cheney. She would, with Trump gone, be what I recently described as a Post-Trump Republican living in something like a Post-Stalin Politburo. That is, she would be trying to climb over the Josh Hawleys, Ted Cruzes, Ben Sasses, and Nikki Haleys of the world in their rush to take power internally. If things proceed as I have been predicting they will (which is the presumption in this scenario, because Cheney will not have allied with Democrats to stop Trumpists), Cheney's only route to a very different kind of presidency would be to win the internal power struggles in America's new one-party state.
Could she win that struggle? Once Trump is gone, it is imaginable that there could be a battle royal, as anti-Trumpers return to try to wrest back control of their party. Cheney is certainly a political fighter, the daughter of a man who was able to shoot a guy in the face and then force him to apologize. Anything is possible, one imagines. Certainly, there will no longer by that point be any internal party disagreement over the peaceful transfer of power, because they will have set up the electoral equivalent of show trials to make it appear that we are still a democracy, without the worry of losing and having to, you know, transfer power.
So there are essentially two ways for Cheney to run a long game. First, she can aggressively work to get a bunch of moderate and liberal Democrats elected, and then go to the Republicans and say, "Now put me in charge, because even though you lost because of me, I'm one of you." Second, she can pose as a principled conservative, lose for several years at taking over her party while it consolidates power, and then figure out how to get the people who -- without her help -- succeeded in making the United States a one-party faux democracy to put her in power.
Or perhaps Cheney has finally concluded that enough is enough, that she is not in it for herself, and that fair and competitive elections and accepting defeat are more important than anything else. Nothing she has done in her career gives me confidence that she is capable of thinking in that way, but it actually makes more sense than either of the long-game scenarios that have her eventually taking the Oath of Office as a Republican president (or even being high up in the party's leadership).
In any event, the current moment is so precarious that any effort to thwart the Trumpified Republican Party is better than nothing. Given that we have no choice but to see how this all plays out, it will be a grim but interesting spectator sport. I do not expect much from Cheney or her offshoot sect, but maybe they will pleasantly surprise us all.