Shameless liars for Trump or out-of-touch Reagan relics? Republicans have bad choices.

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What if you were getting married, going shopping or (God forbid) voting for high-level political leaders, and you had two choices. Behind Door No. 1, a posse of liars and opportunists living (or pretending to live) in a fact-free world, many of them Ivy Leaguers, all of them counting on adoring, supposedly working-class masses to win and keep power. Behind Door No. 2, principled people who insist (if belatedly) on truth-telling, but have unfortunate affinities for unpopular military interventions and starving the federal government of money to keep it smaller than most voters want.

And regardless of their promises, many in both groups are committed to generous tax breaks for the rich and a skimpy safety net for the hard-pressed.

This is today's Republican Party, personified by former President Donald Trump and New York Rep. Elise Stefanik on the one hand and Wyoming Rep. Liz Cheney and Utah Sen. Mitt Romney on the other. And these are the dilemmas that may well confront Republican primary voters in 2022 and 2024.

Sarah Longwell, publisher of the Never-Trump “Bulwark,” called for Cheney to run for president less than five minutes after CNN reported she had been ousted from her House leadership post for repeatedly speaking out against Trump and his grievous abuses of power. “What’s left but to keep leading?” Longwell asked. “The next logical step is challenging her party’s authoritarians for the biggest prize.”

Cheney is a 1980 Reagan Republican

I keep thinking of Cheney as Liz of Arc. Since being metaphorically burned at the stake last week, as in booted from the leadership circle, she has made clear her intent to stay visible. She has been on NBC, Fox News (twice), ABC, CNN and, on Friday, four radio shows and one podcast (including the NH Today radio show in the first primary state, where, of course, she was asked about the presidency and – shockingly – did not rule it out).

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But Cheney is as much a problem as a solution to what ails her party. She is a Ronald Reagan Republican, as she made clear in her NH Today interview. She wants to talk about the need for lower taxes and smaller government. That is a 40-year-old message out of step with today’s tax rates, COVID-19 pandemic, income inequality and racial injustices. But it is a message nearly half of Republicans apparently see no problem with keeping. Only a slight majority in a new CBS News poll said their party needed new ideas to attract voters. Nearly half said it has enough voters and just needs to change voting rules.

Ronald Reagan at the Republican National Convention in Detroit in 1980.
Ronald Reagan at the Republican National Convention in Detroit in 1980.

As far back as 2008, a couple of young, reform-minded conservatives were urging the GOP to switch its focus from country club and business Republicans to the middle and working classes and shoring up traditional families. Barack Obama recognized that supply-side tax cutting had “hardened into a prison for right-wing candidates,” Ross Douthat and Reihan Salam wrote in a post-election introduction to a 2009 edition of “Grand New Party.” John McCain’s strategists, they said, responded to economic anxieties with unserious “culture-war button-pushing.”

The co-authors cited a bipartisan NPR poll that tested policy ideas without labeling them Democratic or Republican. The results undercut the Republican belief that their positions were popular. Even Republicans supported Democratic positions on domestic policies such as rolling back George W. Bush’s tax cuts and focusing on middle-class tax relief. And only 38% of Republicans supported keeping Bush’s tax agenda and cutting wasteful spending (compared with 66% who fell in line with their tribe when it was labeled GOP).

Republican 'autopsy' a tragic artifact

Democratic domestic positions are still more popular than conservative stands. Majorities today approve of a $15 minimum wage, unions, stricter gun laws, COVID-19 relief, immigration reforms that include paths to citizenship (even in Arizona), withdrawing troops from Afghanistan and the role of government.

Where are the ideas? On Biden's jobs and families plans, America needs Republican Party to ante up

The Republican autopsy of the party’s 2012 losses, with Romney leading the ticket, is a tragic artifact in light of the Trump presidency. Trump won in 2016 by flouting its recommendations to be inclusive and tolerant, welcome immigrants and pursue immigration reform. He tacked in its direction on occasion but did the opposite in office. That's what happened to his promises to drain the swamp and replace Obamacare with terrific, phenomenal, fantastic, much better health care.

So what’s the path for the party’s 2024 hopefuls? South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham says they must embrace Trump. "Can we move forward without President Trump? The answer is no," he told Sean Hannity on Fox News this month. "I've determined we can't grow without him."

Embracing Trump means embracing his lies that he won the 2020 election and Joe Biden did not. It also means embracing laws that make it harder to vote and, increasingly, the lie that the deadly Jan. 6 insurrection at the Capitol was a bunch of friendly visitors getting a tour (never mind their weapons, Confederate flags, attacks on cops and the gallows meant for Vice President Mike Pence).

A shocking number of public officials are or at least sound like they're OK with all of that. As for would-be 2024 Trump rivals, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz bragged recently about leading the opposition to the electoral vote count in Congress, and Missouri Sen. Josh Hawley defended his clenched fist salute to Capitol protesters. Florida Sen. Marco Rubio called it "stupid" and "arrogant" to try Trump on impeachment charges related to the riot. Arkansas Sen. Tom Cotton, threading the needle, said Congress had no authority to override certified state vote counts – but he was concerned about election "irregularities" and the 2021 impeachment was "mob law."

The quartet's voting loyalty to Trump ranged from 86.7% (Hawley) to 92.1% (Cruz).

Spare us: After Donald Trump, seven Republican lectures Democrats never need to hear again

President Trump and Sen. Ted Cruz hug it out on the campaign trail
President Trump and Sen. Ted Cruz hug it out on the campaign trail

Some never-Trump Republicans are talking about a third party, but that's a pipe dream. The Cheney faction envisions a return to Reagan's mythological pre-COVID America, when big government was a villain and tax cuts for the rich would trickle down to save the poor.

Rubio and Hawley have another fantasy: the GOP as the working person's party. But they voted against the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan, the popular COVID-19 relief package Biden signed March 11. In fact, not a single House or Senate Republican supported that bill, which provided stimulus checks and other aid to low- and middle-income households. And the two senators voted for the 2017 tax law that has been a windfall for businesses and shareholders (and that Trump signed, just like any other Republican would have).

The Republican creed these days is simple: Support Trump and oppose Biden. If it works in the next two elections, we'll be mired in the Trump and Reagan eras for years. American voters, including conservatives, should think carefully about whether that's what they want.

Jill Lawrence is the commentary editor of USA TODAY and author of "The Art of the Political Deal: How Congress Beat the Odds and Broke Through Gridlock." Follow her on Twitter: @JillDLawrence

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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Lying for Trump and yearning for Reagan: What's a Republican to do?

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