Ride or die.
Support The Bulwark.
  Join Now

Bring on the Liz Cheney Death Match

Cheney’s likely ouster will force the conversation about January 6.
May 11, 2021
Featured Image
(Photo by SAUL LOEB/AFP via Getty Images)

Later this week House Republicans will almost certainly oust Rep. Liz Cheney from her leadership position in the conference. In doing so, they will cement their commitment to former President Trump’s lies about the 2020 election. This is a good thing.

Let me explain.

Had Cheney voted to impeach Trump and then quietly moved along to whitewashing the insurrection (like most other Republicans) then no one may have realized how deeply the Trump brain worms had penetrated the GOP leadership hive mind. She’s giving the party a public MRI.

Yes, the results of this test are awfully ugly, but they may be useful in the end.

GOP leaders would have never admitted how closely they planned to remain tethered to the twice-impeached president who presided over the party’s loss of the House, Senate, and White House. We wouldn’t have known how content they are with Trump’s big election lie. Cheney exposes their complicity. Until she piped up, everyone was on pace to rally under the red elephant flag and chant “Fire Pelosi!” They would have seamlessly moved on from January 6 and started campaigning on Trump’s 2020 election lies for 2022.

But Cheney played spoiler. And yes, this time it’s different.

Never before has there been a prominent Republican in leadership willing to challenge the party about the cost of Trump’s lies.

Some sitting Republicans occasionally mumbled to reporters—mostly on background—about their displeasure with Trump. This entailed very little political risk. Others opposed Trump as their stars were waning and then disappeared once he took over the party. And then there is an entire class which opposed Trump at first, only to slink away into lucrative retirements rather than staying to fight to the last man.

Cheney provides what Trump-resistant Republicans never had before: A galvanizing figure who is a legit rock-ribbed Republican with a live political career. She does not represent a majority in the party. But neither does she speak only for herself: Her views represent a significant bloc of voters that the GOP must have in order to win future elections.


Keep in mind that until recently, while Cheney may have had her disagreements with Trump, she was firmly on the team. Just like her fellow Country First Republican Adam Kinzinger, who voted for Trump in the 2020 election. Neither of them were NeverTrump Republicans, but on January 6, any tenuous bond between Trump and Republicans who value our democracy and institutions more than party broke. Permanently.

So, bring on the conflict. If the party is ever going to take a more positive direction, a change will need to be forced upon it by its voters. And that’s not even a theoretical possibility unless there’s a figure like Cheney for them to rally around.

Once Cheney is loose from the grips of leadership, there is nothing to stop her from working with the Democrats to pursue the January 6 commission, something she said in a Washington Post op-ed is one of her chief goals.

[W]e must support a parallel bipartisan review by a commission with subpoena power to seek and find facts; it will describe for all Americans what happened. This is critical to defeat the misinformation and nonsense circulating in the press and on social media. No currently serving member of Congress — with an eye to the upcoming election cycle — should participate. We should appoint former officials, members of the judiciary, and other prominent Americans who can be objective,  just as we did after the attacks of September 11, 2001. The commission should be focused on the January 6 attacks. The Black Lives Matter and Antifa violence of last summer was illegal and reprehensible, but it is a different problem with a different solution.

Many Republicans, including House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy who refuses to reveal the entire contents of his conversations with Trump that day, have tried to expand the potential scope of the commission to include all forms of political violence. Cheney insists on a sharp focus on January 6.

Since Democrats control both houses of Congress, and such a commission could probably be included in a 50-vote threshold reconciliation bill, there is no reason to think Cheney will not be successful.

As members of Congress would not be permitted to participate in the commission under Cheney’s design, Democrats would do well to work with Cheney to organize competent Republicans to serve on it. There’s no shortage of former GOP officials with impressive investigative, legal, and analytical expertise who could be trusted with the task.

Republicans supporting the commission wouldn’t have to sacrifice an ounce of their ideology to band with the Democrats to advance it, either. The commission has nothing to do with policy. It’s purpose is to safeguard the very institutions that allow both parties to pursue their policy goals. A win-win for all involved.

A January 6 Commission Report wouldn’t be a cure-all silver truth bullet to shoot into malignant MAGA social media streams. But it would help establish a baseline of who was responsible for knowing what, when. And, given the broad number of groups involved with Stop the Steal efforts leading up to January 6, a sweeping exercise in accountability is needed.

If such a report is authorized, it could be released before more election lies saturate the midterms. The facts established in such a report could speak to a small fraction of Republican voters who remain committed to democracy and hold sway over essential races.

When you look at it this way, there’s upside for Cheney. She’ll soon be liberated to do far more good outside of GOP leadership than she could inside it. She’ll still be a member of Congress and even if she loses her seat in 2022 she has more than a year left in office to create a pro-democracy faction within the party.

Cheney has already spectacularly proved her point: As she wrote, “The Republican Party is at a turning point, and Republicans must decide whether we are going to choose truth and fidelity to the Constitution.”

By rejecting Cheney, House Republicans will have chosen poorly. Cheney will be free to fight on her own terms.

Amanda Carpenter

Bulwark political columnist Amanda Carpenter is a CNN contributor, author, and former communications director to Sen. Ted Cruz and speechwriter to Sen. Jim DeMint.