Is Elise Stefanik a conservative?

AP Photo/Jose Luis Magana

I don’t know the answer to the question in the headline but I know the answer to this one: Does it matter if she isn’t?

Consider this post a sequel to last night’s thread about MAGA fans inside and outside Congress grumbling that the soon-to-be new head of the House Republican Conference is a RINO. Erick Erickson made the case against Stefanik on his radio show today:

He forgot to mention that in 2019 she co-sponsored a bill to stop Trump from reducing troop levels in Afghanistan below 10,000 with — ta da — Liz Cheney.

The Lugar Center at Georgetown publishes a “bipartisanship index” ranking all 435 House members in terms of how often they collaborate with the other side on legislation. In the last Congress, Stefanik ranked 13th — not among Republicans, among the entire House. She was the eighth most bipartisan House member within the GOP. Liz Cheney ranked … 421st. She was less bipartisan in her voting than Rashida Tlaib or MAGA favorite Andy Biggs.

Stefanik’s record hasn’t been overlooked by her colleagues either:

The vice chairman of the House Republican Conference has reportedly been complaining privately about what he calls the “coronation” of Rep. Elise Stefanik (R-N.Y.) to replace Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.) as the GOP conference leader.

Rep. Mike Johnson (R-La.) has questioned Stefanik’s conservative credentials to his Republican colleagues and grumbled about the ease at which she has been boosted for the position, according to a report from Punchbowl News on Friday.

Johnson has reportedly been receiving calls from colleagues about Stefanik as the drama surrounding Cheney has unfolded.

Does it matter?

I argued last night and will argue again here that it does not, for two reasons. First, only one person needs to approve of Stefanik’s elevation and he does approve, so what’s there to talk about? “A new Republican Star is born,” Trump tweeted in November 2019 after Stefanik had begun to reposition herself as an attack dog against Democrats on impeachment. The logic of that pivot works as well now as it did then: Any sins on policy can and will be forgiven provided that you show sufficient personal loyalty to Trump. Case in point:

Graham’s record of “warmongering” is longer than Liz Cheney’s is but only Cheney has it held against her because Graham understands that loyalty to Trump is the sine qua non of being a Republican in good standing now. If anything, Trump might relish the fact that Stefanik is out of step with the caucus on policy since it means her elevation to leadership is that much more glaring an act of obedience by the House GOP to him personally. If Jim Jordan, say, had been elevated instead, McCarthy and House Republicans would have had a fig leaf to claim that he got the job by being a staunch conservative, not because he’s a Trump toady. With Stefanik getting the job instead, that fig leaf is gone. Loyalty and nothing but loyalty explains it. The former president must be delighted.

So I’m not sure why Erickson thinks McCarthy convinced Trump to support Stefanik instead of vice versa. If in fact McCarthy had to sell Trump on the idea, it’s probably only because Trump may have wanted Marjorie Taylor Greene in the position instead and McCarthy had to reason him into accepting a more politically palatable — but no less loyal — alternative.

The other reason why Stefanik’s RINO-ism doesn’t matter is that she’s a careerist. She’ll say whatever she needs to say to try to maintain her grip on power now that she has it. If you doubt that, check out how Cheney-esque some of her comments about Trump were when he was first running for president:

“I think he has been insulting to women,” Stefanik said in another local radio interview in August 2015, referring to Trump’s misogynistic comments about then-Fox News anchor Megyn Kelly. “I think this may be Mr. Trump’s peak moment. And I think we’re going to see his numbers change and decline over the coming weeks and months as the other candidates have an opportunity to share their vision for the future of this country.”…

“Donald Trump’s inappropriate, offensive comments are just wrong – No matter when he said them or whatever the context,” she said in a statement [about the “Access Hollywood” tape] posted on Facebook. “I hope his apology is sincere.”

When Trump proposed as a candidate to ban Muslims from entering the country, Stefanik told a local newspaper in a telephone interview, “This is not who we are as a country… This is not according to our constitutional principle.”

“And I associate myself with Speaker (Paul) Ryan’s comment just saying there is no place for what Trump said about Muslims in this country.”

I don’t think those old jabs will hurt her. Trump probably takes great satisfaction in watching former critics bend the knee and grovel for him. He’s certainly had no hard feelings towards Mike Lee, who tried to instigate a floor revolt at the 2016 convention to block him from the nomination and then spent the waning days of the 2020 campaign at Trump rallies comparing him to Mormon religious figures. Trump and Ted Cruz attacked each other in bracingly personal terms during the final months of the 2016 primary yet Cruz ended up with a seat next to Trump at a dinner at Mar-a-Lago just a few nights ago. The former president doesn’t hold grudges against critics once they become courtiers. As long as they’re obedient in their new roles, they’re good.

Stefanik will obey. She may not believe the things she says any more than Cruz or Lee do, but if you’re worried like Erickson is that she’s too squishy to lead the caucus, rest assured that she won’t be any sort of moderating influence. To the contrary, she’ll work hard to make her voting record more conservative over the next few years in the expectation that she might be Speaker or land on a national ticket someday and will need Trumpers to be enthusiastic about her when she does. It wouldn’t surprise me if, in her zeal to rebrand herself as hardcore MAGA, she ends up nudging the caucus a bit more to the right via her new leadership role than a more dogmatic conservative would have.

As for ousting Cheney, I’ll leave you with this quote from her friend and former advisor to her father, Eric Edelman: “It’s all got to do with fealty to Trump and the Big Lie and the fact that Liz is a living reproach to all these cowards.”