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You’ve got to love Washington. Liz Cheney, No. 3 in the House leadership and Republican royalty by way of Wyoming, is about to be sent packing while gung ho Matt Gaetz out of Pensacola, amid credible charges he paid teenagers for sex, merrily rolls along with all his committee assignments intact.
This even though Cheney’s no RINO. She won her seat by cutting her gay sister loose and was a more loyal Trumper (voting with him 93 percent of the time) than the skeezy Gaetz (just 85 percent). When Gaetz went to Cheyenne to blast Cheney as a fake cow girl in cahoots with Joe Biden, she told him to take his beauty bag and go back home.
Still it’s Cheney, possessed of a more active conscience and stiffer spine than others in her party, who will lose her position in the House leadership for merely saying the obvious: that Trump lost the election and incited a mob to reverse it. She further angered her boss, Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, by supporting a 9/11 style bipartisan investigation into just what happened on Jan. 6—which, of course, would also be a probe of the actions of some of her Republican peers Until now, McCarty’s successfully stonewalled on what was said on his call with Trump while his followers were threatening to hang Mike Pence from a noose they’d brought with them. The commission will have subpoena power. The White House records all calls.
As revealing as their respective standing is, Gaetz and Cheney are a proxy for a much larger battle: Are the GOP going to let Trump run their party even though he’s reduced to doing a floor show at Mar-a-Lago and writing a blog, still blocked from Facebook and Twitter? Or will they break free of him while they still have the chance?
The answer from McCarthy is no. After one post-insurrection shouting match, he backed down and made his choice to go with the guy who lost the Senate, the House, and the White House, and whose dream of being carved on to Mt. Rushmore is in ashes. Trump is more likely to find himself, like Rudy Giuliani, various aides, and members of his family, immersed in so many court battles to stay out of prison he won’t have time to mount challenges to the 10 Republicans who voted to impeach him.
What torture this is for McCarthy, who just wants peace in the land and to become Speaker. He’s been trying to have it both ways by appeasing Trump, whom there’s no appeasing, while going kumbaya on Cheney until now. It’s not about one person, he just wants everyone to get along, be on message, and not be "not productive,” his phrase in answer to a question about her calling the Big Lie “poisonous to our democracy” at the party’s retreat in Orlando last week. It was his usual lack of discipline that got him caught on an open mic saying he’s “had it with her.” That fist bump with Biden at his joint session of Congress must have sent him around the bend. He’s now leaving the wet work to his deputy Steve Scalise.
McCarthy’s actually not smart enough to keep two competing interests in his mind at the same time, despite advice from respected quarters like the Wall Street Journal editorial board, and his long-time consultant Frank Luntz, who we just learned rents a room to him in his luxury apartment to spare McCarthy’s six-foot frame nights on his office couch. Luntz doesn’t make policy as much as packages it—the Contract with America and death panels are his. He must sniff McCarthy’s jacket when he gets home to see if he’s hanging out with the wrong crowd again, those undisciplined Trump deadenders, openly calling for Cheney’s head in the face of the incontrovertible fact that to return to the majority, the party has to build a bigger tent, spacious enough for her and Jim Jordan. The Journal warned Tuesday that “bowing to all things Trump” will lose the suburban vote when McCarthy “knows Ms. Cheney is right. The election wasn’t stolen.” Grooming Elise Stefanik, who’s more moderate than Cheney, to fill her shoes won’t fool anyone, particularly Moms outside Philly. Does the New York congresswoman know that lying to voters about 2020 is a requirement of the job?
McCarthy is so spineless it’s a wonder he walks upright. His party is a step back for political, if not human, evolution.
His first mistake was to suss out the path of least resistance and follow it to Mar-a-Lago to beg forgiveness for whispering that the former president bore some responsibility for Jan. 6. That was like waving a red flag in front of a bully and crying “gore me.” He conceded power to the sorest loser in history, power Trump didn’t then have. As Republicans did four years ago, McCarthy stirred the monster into action by appeasing it.
And for what? McCarthy doesn't need Trump. He needs to contain the prisoner of Mar-a-Lago, not do a full Lindsey Graham on him. To win back the House, McCarthy has the wind at his back. The party out of power is generally favored in the midterms. (In a Texas special election last week Republicans wiped out Democrats). He's blessed by Democratic retirements and redistricting. You can count on Democrats to overplay their hand and give him more than Dr. Seuss and Mr. Potato Head to work with. With no Orwellian wordmeister like Luntz to do their reframing, the White House has gone way overbroad defining infrastructure, giving Republicans an excuse to scoff at it. They aren't satisfied with the tectonic shift among Americans who now see that Black people have been discriminated against in every way possible, but are holding out for a confession from a majority that they’re racists themselves.
Those soft breezes may not be enough for McCarthy to prevail. He likes the last person he talked to who also likes him—and that would be Gaetz and not Cheney, with whom he now avoids eye contact. Late to wear a mask, he took up wearing one to hide his teeth, which he’s grinding when she stands next to him at a press conference.
Sadly, he can’t let Cheney, whom he respects, keep her position as long as she’s telling the truth. He’s leading a party that can’t handle the truth. He’ll give other reasons for the coup but won’t be able to hide that he quivers in fear that a man who ran for president on a narcissistic lark, in a fury over Obama trolling him at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner, and worried that his 67th-placed reality show was on the chopping block, might say something nasty about him.
Some of the time, you gotta hate Washington.