It’s Afghanistan, Stupid
Liz Cheney knows what she’s doing. She cares about continuing her father’s legacy and little else.
This week, House Republicans are set to remove Representative Liz Cheney from their leadership, in a move that has already launched a thousand op-eds. Defenders of Cheney, including Nancy Pelosi and Bernie Sanders, have huge incentive to make her ouster about Donald Trump and “January 6.” Her opposition, by contrast, wants to make this about professionalism: Her unhinged attacks demonstrate that she is not leadership material. As House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy noted, in a truthful and vapid comment, GOP House members are concerned Liz cannot “carry out the message.”
Neither side wants to state the obvious. It’s no mystery why Liz Cheney hates Donald Trump so much: It’s about Afghanistan, and the Bush legacy.
On the surface her personal beef with Trump is designed to look like it’s all about “democracy.” She just really feels compelled to keep writing op-eds and speaking out about what is, politically, ancient history, too. It looks undisciplined, but that can’t be right. I recently spoke with a good friend who has had a working relationship with Cheney for a while, and this person noted: “She is brilliant and always in control. If you want someone to read your financials and give granular advice, she’s your woman.”
This doesn’t sound like someone who would recklessly blow up her political future. But my friend went on: “She’s always in control…except on foreign policy. Move into that territory and her eyes transform into those of a zealot.”
By all rights, Cheney should be praising the most pro-Wyoming president in her lifetime, Donald Trump. And by all rights she should be attacking, rather than fist-bumping, Joe Biden, whose program is already killing jobs back home. On Wyoming issue after issue, Trump scores ahead, far ahead of Biden, which is why he won the state in 2020 by 44 percent. That’s a landslide. That’s more than a landslide.
But Trump got us to the finish line on withdrawal from Afghanistan, and Biden is more hawkish, and so Trump gets attacked, and Biden gets Liz’s praise. In fact, Biden’s announcement of a new (unwisely delayed) withdrawal timetable drew a rare rebuke from her. The decision to continue with the Trump withdrawal at all was, to her, a “reckless decision.”
If Cheney is cold and calculating, but wild-eyed on the single issue of continuing her father’s failed strategic vision in the Middle East, doesn’t this explain her actions? She can’t simply coast to a leadership slot—it has to be on her terms, demanding condemnation of Trump by the caucus. Like Mitch McConnell or not, he understands that part of the job of congressional leadership is to make it easier, not harder, for his incumbents to get reelected.
Cheney fragging the Republican caucus is thus calculated to target the weakest, suburban-reliant career politicians and encourage them to defect from the caucus and condemn Trump without thinking. Her actions are supremely selfish and ideologically driven, and they do a disservice to the people of Wyoming.
If she feels compelled to condemn Trump, and to do it in the most reckless way possible, she must know that she will not only lose the leadership contest she was never really going to win, but that she’s also imperiling her reelection back “home” in Wyoming. She has to have an exit plan. As yet, however, with the possible exception of former Trump administration loyalist Perry Pendley, there appears no strong challenger in the wings. So if I’m Liz, I anticipate easy reelection, playing the anti-Trump gadfly for the foreseeable future.
What is her endgame? She might be waiting for a Biden appointment shortly after the 2022 election. Perhaps she is waiting for an MSNBC or CNN “token conservative” deal. But more likely she and her donors hope to lead a defection movement from the GOP to rebuild the failed fusionist coalition. She could certainly go out in a blaze of glory, leaving the GOP and seeking to caucus with the Dems on foreign policy, but voting with the GOP on sham social issues.
The swamp is always happy to have social conservative voters held hostage, giving them the Hobson’s choice of voting for a GOP that cares only about free markets, or nothing at all. In 2020 we saw “fiscal first” suburbs swing for Biden, but many of these voters are still performatively socially conservative. Cheney, who has already flirted with running in 2024, could fill the McMullin lane, giving those suburban voters cover to cast an effectively pro-choice vote.
But if I’m cold and calculating Rep. Cheney, after all the bridge burning, the single thing I don’t plan on doing is supporting my fellow Republicans.
Andrew Kloster is a lawyer in D.C., formerly serving concurrently as associate director in the White House Office of Presidential Personnel and as deputy general counsel at the United States Office of Personnel Management. He has served in various other Trump administration and conservative nonprofit roles, and his weekly newsletter “Right from the Ground Up” covers institutional growth on the right.